A review of Democracy and Expertise

The centering of data within the public policy discourse is happening across the country and the pace of it is accelerating. That’s a big part of my consulting practice now - providing an infusion of data expertise to help an organization move forward toward its goals. It’s important and necessary work now that governments are being asked to do more than ever.

But - it comes with risks - the biggest being that it can quickly become anti-democratic.

It is in this context that I read Fischer (2009) and took away some important lessons about the changing nature of expertise today, the increased technological demands placed on government, and what it means for our ability as citizens to direct our own government.

Expertise often crowds out the voice of the people

For many in the public policy field involvement of the public feels messy, unnecessary, and most dreadfully, inefficient. Here’s Fischer (2009) :

“With each area of modern life under the control of disciplinary expertise - welfare, crime, family environment, schools, and so on - there is little that the citizen would seem to be able to offer. To be sure, the citizen can still express his or her view, but in a world dominated by a centralized state guided in large part by the views of administrative and policy experts, professional advisory committees, think tank specialists, governmental policy staffs, academic consultants, and the like, they have less and less change of being taken seriously. In face of this situation, deliberation based on public opinion moves from being considered a waste of time to being detrimental to the making of effective policy decisions.” p.55

Put differently, the keys of the state have been handed over to professionals who ask us to trust them. And, very often, these professionals are happy to write-off public input as unnecessary and unhelpful. This is anti-democratic. And, it misses the point. The public may not be able to weigh in on which route of garbage trucks is optimal in a small town, but the public can weigh in on how often it wants trash pickup done and how early or late it is acceptable to run garbage trucks. These are values questions, which Fischer argues the public must be allowed to answer.

Denying participation does lasting harm to our communities

Again, quoting Fischer (2009):

“Participation can be also be judged in terms of three effects: instrumental, developmental, and intrinsic.”

Here Fischer means that participation in deliberative control of expert advised government agencies provides participants with the benefit of changing the outcome, developing their skills as a citizen, and reaffirming and showing our public commitment to democratic ideals. Instead of seeing public participation as a box checking exercise on the road to implementation for each policy we need to see it as a vehicle through which we build a better world.

By excluding the public from participating in policy creation we are denying members of our community these benefits - we are depriving them of the satisfaction of being heard, and the sense of efficacy that comes from deliberating, as an equal, with peers about policy issues that matter to you.

We need to broaden what we think of as expertise

Increasingly government agencies have come to prioritize technical knowledge (here meaning specialized professional skills) above other forms of knowledge in their pursuit of efficient and consistent delivery of services. My own biography is an example of this with my skills in R programming and policy evaluation giving me an accelerated career path over peers with other valuable skills.

This is, in part, the result of a politics of “do more with less”. Sometimes, the public wants efficient. But other times, efficiency becomes too narrowly defined and in pursuit of that goal the application of technical expertise goes too far - with disastrous outcomes. Take the in-depth study of changes to the state Medicaid system in Indiana by Eubanks (2017). Focusing on computer-based decision making for denying and approving claims was presented as “objective” but:

“The assumption that automated decision-making tools were infallible meant that computerized decisions trumped procedures intended to provide applicants with procedural fairness. The result was a million benefit denials.”

“Being denied benefits to which you know you are entitled and not being told why says, “You are worth so little that we will withhold life-saving support just because we feel like it.” Openness in political decision-making matters. It is key to maintaining confidence in public institutions and to achieving fairness and due process."

The attempt to purge values, experiential, and political knowledge from the administration of public programs is a mirage. A magic trick. An attempt to enforce a specific world view and to gain an upper hand in discourse. Let Kitcher (2011) tell it:

“An allergy to public value-judgment has long pervaded our discussions of Science, fostering the myth of some neutrality that is actually attained. The deepest source of the current erosion of scientific authority consists in insisting on the value-freedom of Genuine Science, while attributing value-judgments to scientists whose conclusion you want to deny.” p. 40

Expertise needs to confront, not sidestep, the “normative”

From Fischer (2009):

“A great deal of what cognitive psychologists have learned about the interactions between professional experts and citizens points to conflicts between different ways of reasoning. Although such conflicts are typically attributed to the citizens’ inability to understand the technical aspects of any complex issues, such a conclusion may only reflect the privileged position of expert knowledge in modern society. It does not necessarily mean that citizens are unable to reason logically… [citizens] are … exercising a different mode of reason in arriving at their conclusions, often more appropriate to the social situation…” p.85

Indeed - avoiding values as unscientific is simply false. Values guide science directly, and doubly so when it turns to technical expertise deployed in service or assistance of the public through government work. Too often the technical piece is used as a cloak to shield the government and its policy from criticism or inconvenient value concerns expressed by citizens.

And I really like this from Eubanks (2017) which gets at what this says about our soul and our humanity - issues technocrats are uncomfortable talking about, but whether spoken or unspoken are there all the same:

“I find the philosophy that sees human beings as unknowable black boxes and machines as transparent deeply troubling. It seems to me a worldview that surrenders any attempt at empathy and forecloses the possibility of ethical development. The presumption that human decision-making is opaque and inaccessible is an admission that we have abandoned a social commitment to try to understand each other.”

We need to recenter the policy professions around democracy

We need to smash what Fischer (2009) describes here:

“… scientists often present their findings — intentionally or unintentionally — in an intimidating language that gives citizens the sense that they can’t discuss the issues… The end effect is that the process works… to privilege expert knowledge, thus maintaining a barrier to a fuller form of democratization.” p.109

To stop this, we have to reorient our policy analysis away from devotion to values like efficiency, optimization, and “effectiveness”. These economic frames make sense when we are discussing iPhone production, but they have much less utility when we are talking about where to place a public park or where to build a new recycling center. We have to call out the myth that efficiency is objective or that technical solutions can neutrally redistribute finite public goods.

We need to replace this with values. Our public policy needs to be value oriented. We need to weigh values in our policy analysis. And we need to be explicit in stating and understanding our values. Values are the key. Values are the fulcrum upon which democracy turns. The social sciences are not, and cannot, be neutral and objective because they are operating within a society that is composed of competing values and interests. Only recognizing this can move us forward.

Scholars of deliberative democracy have found that merely getting people to come to town halls and give voice to their preferences is not enough. My good friend studies deliberative democracy and reminded me that the successful cases where the public worked together through questions of values in a democratic setting were cases where experts, bureaucrats, and the public worked together — a government “not of, by, or for” the people, but a government with the people.1

And we have to do this because the current system is denying millions from the benefits of participating in our democracy and atrophying our muscles of self-government.


Eubanks, Virginia. 2017. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. First Edition. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Fischer, Frank. 2009. Democracy and Expertise: Reorienting Policy Inquiry. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kitcher, Philip. 2011. Science in a Democratic Society. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.

  1. I’m indebted to my friend Se-Hyoung Yi for his review and feedback on this article and for reminding me to include this work on deliberative democracy.

Jared Knowles

Founder and President of Civilytics Consulting LLC.