Editorial: Expertise, ‘Publics’ and the Construction of Government Policy

John Holmwood

This issue of Discover Society is about the role of expertise and professional knowledge in democracy. In the UK, the vexed nature of the issue was, perhaps, best illustrated by (then Justice Secretary) Michael Gove’s comment during the Brexit campaign that he thought, “the people of this country have had enough of experts.” The comment is oft cited, and derided, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, where the public has, or so it is argued, found a new respect for a science that can guide public policy and deliver solutions.

Yet, Michael Gove’s point was more nuanced than is usually credited. It wasn’t scientific advice that he claimed people were fed up with, but “experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” In other words, his complaint was about specific organised advocacy groups and their intervention in public debate and reporting in the media.

… the Government has consistently mobilised the claimed expert opinion of organisations in justification of their policies

Michael Gove’s extended comment was disingenuous. After all, the Brexit campaign, no less than the Remain campaign, drew upon arguments from think tanks and lobby groups. Moreover, since the referendum, the Government has consistently mobilised the claimed expert opinion of organisations in justification of their policies. Indeed, as Layla Aitlhadj and John Holmwood in this special issue argue, they have deliberately ‘managed’ civil society groups and supposedly independent reviews, such as that currently underway into the Prevent counter extremism policy.

In fact, there is nothing straightforward about the relationship between expertise and democracy as Stephen Turner (2003) has observed. The development of liberal democracy involves the rise of professional and expert knowledge which underpins the everyday governance of public institutions. At the same time, wider publics are asked to trust that knowledge even where it impinges directly upon their preferences; they are not in a position to evaluate it, except through the mediation of other experts. Elected politicians and governments, in turn, are dependent on expert knowledge to guide their policy choices, which are duly constrained by what is possible on the basis of technical judgements.

… government consultations are increasingly events where different positions are staged, rather than evidence organised and evaluated

The standard model of liberal democracy presents the role of wider publics as involved intermittently in the determination of policy through electoral choices based upon party manifestos. This introduces a pragmatic constraint upon each potential governing party, that the cycle of electoral politics will also moderate the direction of politics through the replacement of governing parties. Elections may tend to polarise for their duration, but office brings the governing party back closer to the centre ground and a narrowing of the ‘Overton window’ (that frames political possibilities). It is this process that may now have broken down with polarisation increasingly a mode of governing, especially in the context of populist appeals to a claimed majority ‘common-sense’. As Michaela Benson suggests in her piece for this issue, government consultations are increasingly events where different positions are staged, rather than evidence organised and evaluated. But, let us stay with the standard account.

According to it, advocacy groups operate in terms of a general orientation – ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ ‘centre-right’, ‘conservative’ – but tend to focus on a specific range of interests. For example, those interests may be in social care, pensions, health, education, or any other of the public functions of government. Advocacy groups may be organised as think tanks, or directly as civil society organisations, but they tend to be established as charities, defined by their public mission. Together, they contribute to the public debate through research, reports, and campaigns. However, no less than political parties, they are constrained by their need to get their voices heard, which they do by adapting them to the needs of government.

In Turner’s view, the institutional arrangements of democracy tend to favour the incorporation of advocacy into the established political process with, in consequence, an attenuation of the involvement of wider publics. Governments, political parties, listen to lobbyists and justify their policies on the basis of the evidence supplied by their favoured think tanks (who, in turn, are interconnected with other lobbying groups). What is democratic about that? Certainly, it is far from any participatory model of democracy.

In the UK, Brexit was a disruption of this model in that Michael Gove’s complaint about ‘experts’ was a direct appeal to a wider public supposedly alienated from politics as usual (an ‘alienation’ assiduously cultivated in the campaign process). I will return to the implications of populism for liberal democracy and our understanding of democracy.

… the standard mantra of ‘science’ – both natural and social science – is that research is ‘disinterested’

So far, I have suggested that the standard model of liberal democracy implies a particular kind of expertise in which evidence is ‘interest-based’, that is mobilised to support particular policy outcomes. Yet the standard mantra of ‘science’ – both natural and social science – is that research is ‘disinterested’. On this view, it is about providing the sound evidence on which proper policy in the public interest can be based; in other words, the objective is evidence-based policy, not policy-based evidence. This was evident in Richard Portes’s dismissive response to Michael Gove’s comments, for example, where he argued that advocacy groups had a vested interest in undermining experts precisely because they were interested in policy-based evidence and not evidence-based policy.

There is detailed work in the sociology of science that challenges the easy assumption of the neutrality of science, but I want to make a more mundane point here. The public funding of science, especially, in the UK has shaped it in the direction of becoming interest-based. This is the consequence of the so-called ‘impact agenda’, which has required publicly-funded research (until recently in the process of applying for funds, but also in the evaluation of research and its ex post funding through the Research Excellence Framework) to be directly engaged with user beneficiaries. Indeed, in guidance to researchers it is recommended that research should be ‘co-produced’ with users and their interests should be engaged with in the design of the research and not simply in its application after design and execution.

… much policy research … has adapted to government preferences for ‘behavioural’ over ‘structural’ solutions to problems

At best, this involves an instrumentalisation of research, but more profoundly it involves its politicisation. Much science, of course, can be addressed to commercial uses, but most social science is necessarily directed toward the policy realm, where its users are advocacy organisations, or indeed, government itself. The criteria by which research is evaluated in the REF involve a hierarchy of significance where adoption and implementation by national (and international) bodies is superior to influence on local groups or communities. In effect, government is in the position of selecting knowledge/ evidence as fitting with its purposes and, in doing so, confers ‘value’ within academic systems of reputation and revenue. Indeed, as Kat Smith argues in her contribution, much policy research over the last few decades – whether by advocacy groups, or by academics – has adapted to government preferences for ‘behavioural’ over ‘structural’ solutions to problems.  

Let me complicate things with one further step. The language of publics encourages the idea that there is a ‘public interest’ and that it is the task of government to conduct itself with the public interest in mind. This is a convenient fiction among many scientists and is part of the complacent reflection that, in the face of Covid 19, the government has come to recognise the value of science. Yet, as Reiner Grundmann argues in his contribution, it is difficult to separate science from commercial interests and the development of vaccines, however significant for public health, is bound up with the private interests of pharmaceutical companies which create particular path dependencies for future development.

… international fora aggregate national interests and the differential power of existing nation states

These problems are compounded both at ‘global’ and at ‘local’ levels. As the Covid pandemic has illustrated, the developments in the international context of the disease have consequences for national policies and plans. So, too, for the other great challenge facing us, that of climate change. As Mark Harvey argues, international fora aggregate national interests and the differential power of existing nation states. Indeed, the most powerful nations, as well as those most powerful within them, are the most polluting. This is also a problem for the social sciences which are themselves organised nationally and oriented to influence the same powerful actors.

If national policy processes confound international cooperation, the specific nature of some policy regimes also undermines ‘local’ engagement. For example, the neo-liberal approaches to governance favoured by Anglophone political regimes propose that markets embody the public interest, such that policies over the last several decades have involved the transfer of many public services to private providers. Grundmann offers an expansive definition of expertise, to include ‘lay expertise’ and that embodied within ‘communities of practice’. However, for that expertise to be available within the public domain, it needs to be in circulation and privatisation decreases circulation.

Let me provide one example by way of illustration. Schooling in England used to be the responsibility of local educational authorities under elected councils. Local authorities organised educational services and facilitated exchanges across LEAs and with parent associations, trades unions and professional associations, through to the responsible government ministry. Around 75% of secondary schools are now academies and outside the responsibility of local authorities. They are organised within Multi Academy Trusts, which need have no geographical contiguity of its schools. Communities of practice are disrupted and fragmented, and that disruption is the specific aim of government policy.

In effect, while ‘marketisation’ is ostensibly a dispersal of decision-making to individual ‘consumers’,  in the field of public services it involves a centralisation of political power. It is precisely the centralisation of that power that has serious consequences for the standard model of expertise and liberal democracy.

… ‘diversity conservatives’, individuals from black and ethnic minority backgrounds denying structural inequalities

First, it provides government with many more levers for the influence of public debate and provides a strong incentive to use them, since the capacity for civil society to generate counter arguments is diminished. For example, many of the bodies that are assigned an ‘arms-length’ role in the evaluation and regulation of the conduct of government are increasingly filled with appointments of commissioners favourable to the government. This is a process that extends from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, through the National Trust, the Charity Commissioners and Ofcom. This was most clearly illustrated in the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and its report, which denied institutional racism, notwithstanding the weight of evidence presented to it’ It is also evident in the appointment of William Shawcross as Independent Reviewer of Prevent (see Aitlhadj and Holmwood in this issue). Frequently, as Les Back argues, these commissioners present themselves as ‘diversity conservatives’, individuals from black and ethnic minority backgrounds denying structural inequalities. 

The criticism of the Race and Ethnic Disparities Report by the Runnymede Trust gave rise to a group of conservative MPs requesting that the Charity Commissioners should investigate it for a breach of rules governing its charitable status. This had followed a decade of similar investigations of Muslim charities and civil rights organisations that had criticised the Prevent, as well as lobbying by advocacy groups close to the government to further restrict charities in receipt of public funding from political commentary. Just as the impact agenda shapes publicly-funded research towards government agendas, so a clause in funding bids by charities for public support restricts their critical engagement in the public sphere. The shaping of independent bodies is also extended to proposed new ministerial powers over the Electoral Commission.

In 1967 Howard Becker posed the question to social researchers, ‘whose side are we on?’. His purpose was not to advocate partisanship, but to make the point that research could not avoid being seen as partisan and, therefore, it was important to understand the politics and sociology of expertise. There was, he argued, a hierarchy of credibility where the understandings of elites were normalised and those of the less powerful were marginalised. Social research that aligned itself with the former was also assigned credibility and warranted as ‘objective’. In contrast, social research that sought to address the circumstances of the marginalised was seen as ‘partial’.

… power and privilege always hold their shape and refuse to be impacted upon unless forced to do so

The solution to this latter situation cannot be a retreat to a claim to professional expertise in order to reinforce credibility with gatekeepers, as Ben Baumberg Geiger finds in his interviews with authors of impact case studies for submission to the 2014 REF sociology panel. Back suggests that power and privilege always hold their shape and refuse to be impacted upon unless forced to do so. Academic researchers need to engage more directly and collaboratively with publics and participants, rather than setting their expertise apart from them. Indeed, there are pitfalls in a simple adoption of a ‘social justice’ standpoint. This represents a seemingly different claim to credibility, but without collaboration can involve marginalised communities and activists experiencing the claim to expertise seemingly mobilised on their behalf as oppressive.

If, as Grundmann and Harvey each argues, community groups and the knowledges of protesters are necessary voices, they may also come into conflict with the claims of sociologists and reveal the hidden operation of power. Our final contribution is by three members of the ‘Stansted 15’ who faced imprisonment under counter-terrorism laws for having obstructed a Home Office flight to deport migrants deemed to be ‘illegal’. Mel Evans, Emma Hughes and Ruth Potts write about the experience of being researched and represented in the context both of their risk of imprisonment and the significance of their cause. Their contribution raises serious substantive issues of research practices and knowledge-making, but also ethical issues. The constraints of ‘impact’ impinge whether the researchers regard themselves to be within or outwith hegemonic arrangements.


Becker, Howard (1967) ‘Whose side are we on?’, Social Problems, 14(3): 239-47. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/799147

Turner, Stephen P. (2003) Liberal Democracy, 3.0 Civil Society in an Age of Experts, London: Sage. Geiger, Ben Baumberg (2021) ‘Performing Trustworthiness: the ”credibility work” of prominent sociologists’, Sociology, 55(4): 785-21. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038520977805

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: ydant


Holmwood, John 2021. ‘Editorial: Expertise, ‘Publics’ and the Construction of Government Policy’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2021.03.0001