The Pandemic Unveils the Politics of Expertise

The pandemic COVID-19 unleashed a global crisis that pressed for expertise more than ever before.  Virologists, epidemiologists, and other health scientists were hunted all across the nations to reframe health policies to cater to the requirements of the pandemic.  And, their formulations to contain the coronavirus remained unchallenged.  The epistemic authority of experts justified restrictive measures even though they involved discomfort. 

The policy adjustments were never as quick as it was during the pandemic. The conventional policy makers conceded more space to the experts to contain the contagion and save the lives of millions of people. Even, the selection of knowledge and evidence was left to the experts, which otherwise was a political task. It may have caused some hidden discomfort to those who have rarely been ignored or sidestepped, though they continued with the enforcement and implementation of measures proposed by experts to remedy the situation. 

Expertise is a stock of knowledge generated through research and analysis. It is different from experiential learning and recurrent use of knowledge. The experience and practical usage make a person learned and proficient but not an expert. The experts create knowledge, whereas policymakers use such knowledge.  Artificial intelligence and climate change mitigation and adaptation measures are some of the examples of knowledge created by experts but applied through public policies. The political executives may accept or deny knowledge, depending on their policy ambitions, populism, or contextual requirements. The pandemic, however, did not leave much choice to them. 

Though not necessarily linear, policymaking involves a multidisciplinary process. Professor Eugene Bardach and Professor. Eric M. Patashnik defined an eight-fold path, which begins with defining the problem and continues till the completion of the story.  The collection of data and evidence,  construction of alternatives, selection of criteria, projection of outcomes, encountering trade-offs, and focusing on implications are other steps in completing the story. 

During the pandemic, the problem defined itself with sufficient evidence, and there was no time for data collection and research.  Given the deadly nature of the virus, the normal processes would not have worked. The existing and even some indigenous knowledge, wisdom, and practices saved lives. The trial and error method was applied quite often. The research and formulation of the vaccine at lightning speed also involved process-cutting, commonly termed bureaucratic procedures.

The experts followed their path and formulated and reformulated the policies that the political executives and bureaucracy enforced.  They also provided evaluation and maintenance support, which otherwise was a task of the civil servants. The policies and enforcement efforts of the governments worked well, and the pandemic is nearly endemic now.

The policymaking during the pandemic unveiled a new debate on the politics of expertise. The exclusion theorists feel that domination of experts in an emergency, whatever successful it may be, can not be a rule forever. Their efforts during the pandemic, however, implore that the role of experts in the making of public policies should henceforth be more pronounced. 

There may be evidence suggesting that the political executives did not hesitate to sidestep bureaucracy to suit the situation. And, unsubstantiated averments also suggest that civil servants were unwilling to give up their conventional indirect role in policymaking. It may be difficult to deny that the civil servants played a critical role in managing the crisis, but a dearth of knowledge and information about the widespread new contagion was a constraint. The active collaboration and participation of the experts filled the gap and helped meet the challenges with the support of political executives. 

The triangular strife in policymaking is showing its signs. Some experienced and proficient civil servants consider their experience as expertise.  On the other hand, the arrogance of experts has also risen. Some of them claim to be the sole repository of knowledge. The political executives are sitting pretty, and they opt for whatever gets them the results and the support of their constituents.  

Policymaking cannot remain in a silo. It is also not merely a function of experts or civil servants.   It requires multidisciplinary thoughts and actions for success. The experts generate data and create evidence – digital or physical, and produce multiple options but may not be able to embed these in a context, which is primarily a socio-political decision. They can define the cause of action and suggest a solution but can not decide its suitability in a context. They may understand the economy of knowledge, but the knowledge can not be used or promoted without a clear understanding of the physical economy. The role of political executives is also vital to achieving and maintaining democratic and civil influence and public essence in the policies.  

The politics of expertise shall not become a bane of policymaking. The availability of experts should be solicited along with the active participation of all stakeholders with due humility and respect for human values, even if we transform from a physical world to a virtual world. The interaction and networking with the stakeholders should help narrow down the choices of knowledge and evidence.  Such an effort would enhance the credibility and acceptability not only of the process but also the policies. 

The knowledge, in any case, cannot operate independently of asymmetric power relations. The prejudices and biases of individuals and organizations may interfere with and produce policies that are not non-discriminatory. Efforts are needed to minimise bias in policy making without excluding expertise and innovations.  All social actors – individuals, and organisations should come together as constellations in various forms of socially structured power to pursue policymaking with clearly shared moral preferences and material interests. It will help create informed, evidence-based, and inclusive policies, rendering the politics of expertise meaning less.


  1. The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance by Ole Jacob Sending, Michigan University, USA (2017).
  2. Politics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society by Zeynep Pamuk, Princeton University, USA (2021).
  3. The Politics Of Expertise: FrenchInstituteUK.
  4. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving” by Prof Eugene Bardach, University of California, Berkeley, and Prof Eric M. Patashink, Brown University, USA. (2020).
  5.         An Online Survey to Study Challenges faced by Teachers in Online Teaching during the Pandemic COVID-19: Internal Quality Assurance Cell(IQAC), Dev Samaj College of Education, Chandigarh. (2020)
  6. The politics of being an ‘expert’: A critical realist auto-ethnography of drug policy advisory panels in the UK. Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology by Stevens, Alex (2020).
  7. Drug policy constellations: A Habermasian approach for understanding English drug policy by AlexStevens and Giulia Federica Zamponi (2018).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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