Does it matter if politicians know what they are doing?

grodem and hippeAnne Skevik Grødem & Jon M. Hippe

In the current political climate, academic knowledge and topical expertise do not appear to be the most sought-after qualities in political leaders. Increasingly, life in the world’s capitals is portrayed as a battle for power between politicians and civil servants. Incoming politicians are often charismatic, prone to sweeping statements on complex issues, and portray themselves as representatives of the people who will “drain the swamp” and “get things done”. Among the swamp creatures, more often than not, they place civil servants: the dull nerds, obsessed with their rules and budgets, far removed from the people they are supposed to be serving. In this picture, there is a clear rift between the dynamic, if ignorant, politician, and the change-averse, but smart, civil servant. Against this background, it seems more important than ever to discuss: what is the relationship between knowledge and action in politics? Or, to put it differently, does it matter whether politicians know what they are doing?

In our recent Policy & Politics article, we argue that the politicians who actually get things done are those who are capable of working with civil servants, developing policies collaboratively with them, and learning from the experience. Even better are politicians who come in with solid knowledge, who not only know what they want to do, but also how to do it and how they can convince potential opponents. The case that substantiates our argument is the reform of Norwegian pensions: a reform that requires people to work for longer in order to obtain the same retirement income. Currently in France, a proposed similar reform has led to large-scale strikes, but in Norway, it passed quietly with little resistance. This suggests some skills on the reform architects’ side. How did they do it?

The Ministry of Finance sought pension reform since the 1990s, but the trade unions consistently mobilised against it. In order to move things forward, the Ministry of Finance assembled a Pension Commission. The commission consisted of members from all parties in Parliament, and almost all members were economists by training, or they had served on the Standing Committee on fiscal policies. The secretariat was dominated by civil servants from the Ministry of Finance. Commission members, by virtue of their background, shared many of the ideas that dominated in the Ministry of Finance, and were capable of working with the secretariat to develop a blueprint for a new pension system. With the guidance of the Ministry of Finance – and much to everybody’s surprise – the Commission was able to agree on a joint proposal for a radical pension reform. All the larger parties in Parliament supported this proposal, but many parties faced internal opposition and  the trade unions were infuriated. This was a vulnerable stage in the reform process: the reform architects had shown their hand, and other actors mobilised. The members of the Pension Commission had become experts on the issue, but rival expert communities now called their expertise into question. A different type of leadership was necessary in order to progress the proposed pension reform.

The incoming Prime Minister of Norway at this stage was an economist by training, and one of the most ardent supporters of the reform. He made sure he fully understood the proposal by seeking tutorials from a civil servant, and then applied this knowledge in debates with other experts, as well as in addresses to the general public. As a politician, he understood how important pensions were to the trade unions and was able to win the support of influential unionists; as an economist, he could counter any argument trade union economists and others brought up. This is a key point in our argument: a professor in economics could draft a new pension system, but he would not understand the political games well enough to gather the support a reform would need. A career politician can work via his network and charm people to support him, but he would need a lot of help when challenged by issue experts.

Our analysis highlights the role economists can play in macro-economic reforms: economists speak the same language and share many key priorities, which can create a sense of unity that transcends the distinction between politicians and civil servants. Unity around “the economic argument” can extend to include economists based in trade unions and business confederations, which help to create a stable consensus around potentially controversial reforms.

We conclude that complex reforms need two types of expertise: topical and political. A politician who has genuine expertise, either because he/she has worked consistently on an issue over time, or because he/she is an expert by education, can provide both. Such figures are extremely valuable in reform processes.  For this reason, we suggest that politicians who understand complex issues and work with them systematically are the most likely to get things done.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Grødem, Anne Skevik & Hippe, Jon M. (2019) ‘The expertise of politicians and their role in epistemic communities‘, Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15662966019989 [Open Access]

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Vertical epistemic communities in multilevel governance

Rethinking the role of experts and expertise in behavioural public policy

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