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Making room for expertise in democracy

25th Nov 2016

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about whether expertise is falling out of fashion. It was a theme picked up in a lecture on Tuesday by Beth Noveck, Enough of experts? Data, democracy and the future of expertise. Beth has spent time in both the White House, and in No10 (we actually shared an office in No10 a few years back). Her thesis is critical of current practice, but optimistic about the capacity of technology to open the door to new ways of involving not just traditional expertise, but ‘everyday experts’.

Beth’s work can be seen as addressing a problem highlighted in another lecture this week, picked up on BBC Radio 3, on the failure of modern institutions to listen to anyone very well. Jim Macnamara explained how most government institutions, and many private institutions, talk a lot about listening to their citizens, customers, and workers. However, when you look at it empirically, they’re not very good at it. Even among institutions that pride themselves on listening, it turns out that 85-95 percent of their ‘communication activity’ is actually talking at people – broadcast-mode.

To be fair, it’s partly a reflection of the human condition. Most of us aren’t very good at listening. How many meetings have you been at where, when the Chair suggests that people introduce themselves, most people (including you?) were too busy thinking about what to say that you missed what everyone else actually said. Even when we do listen, we often don’t actually hear what is said. We’re all much better at absorbing ideas that fit with what we already know, than ones that don’t.

Macnamara argues that organisations that want to do better need to create ‘an architecture of listening’. Similarly, Noveck urges us to build, and use, platforms that make it easier for people with all forms of expertise to engage with each other, enabling much more collaborative solutions to be developed. And by expertise, she doesn’t just mean academics, but also the expertise that comes from living with a long-term condition, or knowing what it’s like to live in a given place or with a particular problem. For example, our recent work alongside Nesta and the Health Foundation on the Realising the Value Programme, highlights how the expertise and experience of those with long-term health conditions can be harnessed to support others, so that they can stay as well as possible.

If governments do want to be a bit better at listening and learning, then a good place to start is to be open about setting out their thinking and evidence behind their actions and policies. This was the subject of a thoughtful paper released this week by Sense about Science. The report carefully trawls through piles of UK government publications and statements covering a wide range of policy, looking specifically at the transparency of the argument and the evidence. It doesn’t try and take a position on the policy conclusions, or even whether the evidence is ‘right’. But it does map whether the evidence is presented, explained, and referenced. Without this basic form of transparency, it’s impossible for others – whether expert or lay – to assess whether the policy or proposal is based on strong foundations, to enter into debate, or to add helpful additional material.

One area where the report is critical is the relatively low levels of transparency around the evidence behind decisions made by the Treasury, on both tax and economic policy (a critique not limited to the UK). Yet on this, the authors might cheekily claim a remarkably early win.

There was an historic, and under-commented development in this week’s Autumn Statement. The Chancellor announced that he was going to abolish it. The announcement was delivered in the form of a rare gag from our new, and self-consciously dry Chancellor, which might explain why its deeper significance was easily lost. This is what he actually said – italics added:

This is my first Autumn Statement as Chancellor. After careful consideration, and detailed discussion with the Prime Minister, I have decided that it will also be my last.

Mr Speaker, I am abolishing the Autumn Statement.

No other major economy makes hundreds of tax changes twice a year, and neither should we. So the spring Budget in a few months will be the final spring Budget. Starting in autumn 2017, Britain will have an autumn Budget, announcing tax changes well in advance of the start of the tax year.

From 2018 there will be a Spring Statement, responding to the forecast from the OBR, but no major fiscal event. If unexpected changes in the economy require it, then I will, of course, announce actions at the Spring Statement, but I won’t make significant changes twice a year just for the sake of it.

This change will also allow for greater Parliamentary scrutiny of Budget measures ahead of their implementation. Mr Speaker, this is a long-overdue reform to our tax-policy making process and brings the UK into line with best practice recommended by the IMF, IFS, Institute for Government and many others.

Credit to the Chancellor. It may yet prove to be the most important announcement and change in policy he ever makes, not just for the timing, but the sentiment behind it. If it opens the door to better scrutiny, better evidence, better public and expert engagement in some of the most important decisions that governments have to take, it will in turn bring better policies and a stronger democracy. In sum, it will be an important step towards a more ‘listening architecture’, and more evidence-based world.