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Some Thoughts on the Study of Historical State Expertise February 13, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.

Although I identify as a historian of science, my current project to survey expertise in the British state makes no real effort to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific forms of expertise.  In a subsequent post I intend to elaborate on my beliefs that such distinctions have not mattered much to historical actors either.  For now, however, since I don’t want to extend my survey to basically anyone with specialized skill, which would include, say, clerks, I’ve needed a working definition: anyone a) whose input affects the design of a policy, or b) who must apply a policy in concrete situations.

To my comfort, I soon found this bifurcated view of expertise casually expressed in conversations within the British civil service.  One inquiry into the worth of a research branch of the Agricultural Land Service of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries asked for comments on its work’s bearing on either the “formulation” or the “administration” of policy.  I’ll be on the lookout to see whether this pairing is a term of art, or simply an off-the-cuff way of distinguishing obvious functional divides in bureaucratic work.

From the wartime "Growmore Leaflet" No. 62, "Beating the Wireworm"

Another issue is the overlapping of expertise and representation.  In British agriculture, the importance of location was well appreciated, and knowledge of local conditions was considered a form of expertise to be consulted as a matter of course in the formulation and administration of agricultural policies.  Bodies such as the Agricultural Improvement Council (AIC) sought out membership that represented the full diversity of farming conditions in the English and Welsh countryside (Scotland and Northern Ireland even had their own separate advisory bodies).  Likewise, it went without saying that the powerful National Farmers’ Union was always to have at least one representative on the council.  The National Union of Agricultural Workers also had a representative throughout the AIC’s existence.  Later a land agent was included as well.

In these instances, it was never considered essential to separate out representation of interests from the provision of diverse kinds of professional and local expertise.  Knowledge of the problems of farming essentially doubled as a means of ensuring that these problems were taken into account in the formulation of policy.

However, since the AIC was an advisory body, its members were expected to work together to develop a synthetic picture the relationship between farming and research problems, rather than simply to represent their own interests (one member almost lost his place because he was perceived as speaking too much from personal interests).

When decisions were being made as to whether to keep or replace members in the periodic reconstitution of the council — most were kept on — the key criterion (apart from age; they usually offered to step aside after they turned 70) was one’s ability or willingness to participate broadly in council deliberations.  In the 1950s, there was unusual turnover in representation from farmers from northern Wales, who often did not participate in discussions not directly relevant to their concerns.  On the other hand, some members had such broad expertise that they were considered more-or-less irreplaceable.

One should keep in mind here that the AIC was a small body, and that expertise specific to only one locality or issue was likely to be more valued within investigations performed by the AIC’s committees and sub-committees, which comprised mainly people not on the council.  The main council mainly served to direct, coordinate, and communicate the work of its committees.

This perspective on state expertise is intended to reflect the fact that legitimacy and quality in policymaking are as much about creating policies and administering them in such a way that it takes into account and fairly balances a wide variety of factors and concerns, regardless of any formal recognition of the epistemic status of contributions.  Scientific opinions were important, but so was knowledge of agricultural markets and common farming practices, for example.

Another issue is that very specific forms of expertise only had relevance within broader policy frameworks.  These policy frameworks are set at the highest level by political goals, and at the next highest level by governing strategies directed toward achieving those goals.  In British postwar history, nationalization of industry is a good prominent example of such a strategy.

Although political scientists and economists theorized extensively about such strategies, one cannot really speak of the state deploying a scientific expertise in the establishment of political and administrative strategies.  I do, however, intend to treat high-level political experts (ministers and high-level civil servants) as experts of a kind in methods of governance and in specific issues.  Whether and to what extent theorists of political economy influenced day-to-day work of governance remains to be seen (although I imagine people working within those fields already have done some work in this area).

Ultimately, the goal is not to split hairs over who is or is not an expert, but to develop a sense of the different kinds of expertise that existed within the state apparatus, and to understand the different ways in which they have been organized.


1. Weekly Roundup | The Bubble Chamber - February 18, 2011

[…] Thomas writes thoughts on expertise and the state on Ether Wave […]

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