During this time of crisis, the role of independent experts has been at the centre of the political response in nations around the world. Governments have leaned on scientific expertise, such as the prominent role of Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in the US response to the pandemic, or Boris Johnson’s repeated assurances that the British response plan was based on scientific evidence and expert advice.
Citizens also want to see and hear from experts in times of crisis. In many cases people would rather see independent experts taking decisions directly, by-passing partisan politicians. Many who would otherwise accept the importance of pluralist views in political debate and the “inefficiencies” of democratic politics, argue that during times of crisis, the rules of the democratic game can change. Under such conditions, they are more interested in effective action that would lead to the best outcomes rather than in the usual democratic processes. This change in attitudes can manifest itself as heightened support for the existing leadership, what is known as the “rally around the flag” effect. It can manifest as increased demands for a technocratic or national unity government and a pause to party politics. In some cases, as happened recently in Hungary, it can also manifest itself as an acceptance of authoritarian measures that effectively negate a country’s democratic status.
As the public health crisis unleashed by Covid-19 turns into an economic and political crisis, the role of independent expertise in democratic politics will become an important question once more, reigniting debates as to which experts we can trust, what their role should be in our democracies and whether governments can absolve responsibility by following scientific advice. In a recent book focused on the relationship between technocracy and democracy, we studied the role of independent expertise in political systems and assessed what the effect is of technocratic politics on democracies around the world. We can draw together at least five key lessons from this research.
1. Independent experts are key parts of modern democratic systems – even if technocratic power is often described as a counterweight to democratic power.
The political role of independent experts is legitimated through the specialised knowledge they possess and the “neutral” position they occupy vis a vis political conflict. Independence and scientific expertise allows technocrats to advocate for responsible governance – efficient and optimal outcomes that are an integral part of democratic political systems.
2. Technocratic expertise can be non-partisan, but not apolitical.
The moment independent experts operate within politics, make political decisions, or are involved in the decision-making process, they become political actors. Political decisions are formulated to achieve specific goals and have important implications, often redistributive in nature. A review of all technocratic and technocrat-led governments in Europe by Marco Valbruzzi shows that the vast majority assume political power to achieve a specific set of goals, or remit. These goals need to be transparent. The same applies to technocratic bodies, such as the European Central Bank. Two studies of EU technocratic bodies presented in the book by Reinout van der Veer show that technocratic actors do show responsiveness to external demands.