Rob Sutton is an aspiring junior doctor in Wales and a former member of Parliament. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.
The combined action of emergency measures allowing legislation to bypass parliamentary scrutiny and a virus pandemic that requires the swift interpretation of ever-changing and highly technical data has exposed a troubling weakness in the heart of government: our expert advisors, how talented they are May they be and hardworking as individuals, they have left much to be desired.
This is not only due to the consultants themselves, but also to the internal structures and incentives that number 10 relies on when providing advice. The organizations that Johnson’s government turns to for expert opinion (SAGE, Public Health England, the Department of Health and the Government Office for Science) have effective monopolies in their own niches.
Despite the breadth of talent these groups come from and the impression of the depth of available opinion, there is relatively little overlap between their pleadings, and they are ultimately consensus machines: they are designed to create a unified position rather than competing proposals.
From a political communication perspective, this is ideal. The presentation of a position based on the interpretation of ambiguous (and unstable) data as a scientific consensus offers a certain protection from criticism.
However, this is hardly a good approach to building policy. Although these problems have been around for a long time, they have been dramatically exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated increased government reliance on expert advice. The natural monopoly of ideas of these expert panels has resulted in a predictably narrow scope for political debate.
This is a concern that has angered many in parliament who are increasingly feeling marginalized in favor of unelected experts who are not exposed to public scrutiny or internal competition. Always the prolific organizer and influencer, Steve Baker was among the leading calls for expert advice reform in the government, arguing that this should be prioritized in a letter to the Prime Minister.
A government that withdraws from parliamentary control and is shaped by a vision of centralized control hardly encourages open discussion. However, the importance of balancing conflicting advice has become, more than ever, a critical requirement for effective policy making. The root of the problem is what Distributors should be doing. Is it your job to dispassionately report the available evidence? Or to interpret it in a broader social and political context?
This uncertainty was in part a government problem. The unshakable fixation on “following science” presupposes that “science” is an immutable body of knowledge.
This is an untrue and unhelpful statement. The scientific method requires a narrow and well-defined hypothesis, from which it follows that any interpretation should have a narrow and well-defined applicability. To test this hypothesis, metrics are proposed to observe and quantify the phenomenon under study.
These metrics, which are a representation and not the phenomenon itself, move us a bit away from reality (e.g. positive results do not mean the number of infections; they are a proxy). Data analysis and statistical methods move us a little further away, as does the final interpretation of what this analysis tells us, if at all.
The strength of the scientific method therefore also lies in its weakness: we achieve results with narrow applicability, we have to apply human prejudices to interpret them, and then apply these findings to real situations with all their unsolvable disorder.
Add predictive methods such as modeling that are extremely sensitive to both initial parameters and the specific model being used, and the problems become worse. The assumption that there is a single well of scientific evidence from which the answers to all of our political questions must clearly emerge is a political fiction. And it is rather cynical to provide these answers without reproach from the scientific layperson.
We therefore have two problems which together limit the effectiveness of expert advice in government: an exclusive inner circle of advisors who have an effective monopoly on policy proposals (even excluding Parliament itself) and who rely on research data that is inevitably narrow Scope of application and is subject to different interpretations. Science can tell us a lot about the world as it is; it is a powerful means of answering “what”, but it is silent on “should” questions.
Under normal circumstances, parliamentary scrutiny would serve to mitigate the most extreme proposals in government policy. However, after the emergency laws passed in March, we no longer enjoy this luxury. This has exposed the fragility of the government market due to proposals for expert policy.
Without internal competitive processes to broaden the conversation and provide alternative options, there is a lack of worrying incentives to encourage policymakers to deviate from consensus. With an effective advisory monopoly, there is little reason why ideas are good or even actionable as long as they are presented with a touch of consistency.
This is the reason why interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary competition for policy proposals is so important. An interdisciplinary competition would allow us to weigh the effects of Covid-19 on public health against broader considerations such as economics and mental health. An intradisciplinary competition would allow for a rigorous debate about conflicting interpretations of data.
However, it is notoriously difficult to embed this type of competition that is so natural in the private sector in the public eye. There are ways that this can be incorporated into the current organizational structure. “Red teams”, groups whose main purpose is to play the devil’s advocate and uncover weaknesses and unforeseen complications, would be a step in the right direction.
Baker and, ironically, Dominic Cummings (who has often frustrated those complaining about the government’s excessive reliance on a small number of expert voices) are among those who have advocated its implementation.
I suspect there are few who would try to argue that the expert advice this government relied on so heavily during the coronavirus pandemic was an overwhelming success. However, the current legislature is still young and if reforms in the procurement of expert advice were implemented with determination, we should quickly see that they pay off.