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The Role of Experts in Policy-Making: Bridging the Gap between Normative Theory and Empirical Analysis

Johan Christensen
Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, Universiteit Leiden
Johan Christensen
Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, Universiteit Leiden
Cathrine Holst
Universitetet i Oslo

While scholarship on the role of experts in policy-making is growing rapidly, a disconnect is visible in the literature. On the one hand, there are sweeping diagnoses of ‘technocracy’ or ‘epistocracy’. These grand diagnoses often lack a clear empirical basis and disregard the conflicting realities on the ground. And they assess expertization as either good – typically for decision quality – or bad – typically for democracy, disregarding the complex task of normative justification under conditions of reasonable pluralism. On the other hand, empirical studies of the involvement of experts in policy-making often allude to the implications for democracy but rarely address this issue in more than a cursory way.

The paper seeks to bridge this gap between normative theory and empirical analysis. Based on different reasonable conceptions of democracy, it develops indicators of legitimate expert involvement in policy-making that can be assessed empirically. This includes indicators such as the participation of academic experts in policy-making relative to other groups, epistemic diversity among expert participants, and use of scientific argumentation.

These indicators are applied to one important form of technocratic politics, namely the involvement of experts in policy formulation through advisory bodies. The paper analyzes an extensive new dataset of Norwegian temporary advisory commissions appointed by government to examine a specific policy issue and propose policy solutions. The dataset covers the period 1972-2016 and includes 1500 advisory commissions. Based on data on commission composition and citations in commission reports, the paper traces developments over time on indicators of legitimate expert involvement in policy-making.

While the analysis provides few definitive answers, it offers an example of how systematic empirical analysis can elucidate evaluative questions about the role of technocracy in democracies. The combination of normative theory and quantitative empirical analysis constitutes a novel methodological contribution to scholarship on the topic.
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