Governing (by) knowledge

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Knowledge is now central in governing. It has become both vehicle and substance of policy. How does this challenge democracy?

In Europe, information and expertise are now both more widely distributed and more readily accessible than ever before. At the same time, expectations of transparency and public accountability have increased. European discourses about the knowledge economy and evidence-based policy-making clearly express a strong demand for increasing the role of knowledge in the economy and in the policy process. Many expectations ride on this notion that more knowledge will be the key to better policy-making.

This demand for knowledge is not simply a demand for knowledge that will inform the policy process. It is also a demand for forms of knowledge that will become policy instruments in their own right. Knowledge then is coming to play a new role in policy. Diverse knowledge-based governing tools - such as indicators, benchmarks, comparisons, trainings or participation devices - contribute to the development of new modes of governance.

While traditional modes of governance require ‘established’ bodies of knowledge to be translated into ‘vertical’ regulations, the new modes of governance consist rather in attempting to turn actors’ autonomy and reflexivity into a means of governing. Each actor becomes increasingly responsible. In his/her complex and context-specific environment, s/he is expected to develop actions based on his/her knowledge and representations.

So using only legal rules or incentives is not enough. Political action must now change ways of knowing in addition to changing rules. Knowledge-based governing tools are precisely designed to generate information and provide actors with forms of knowledge meant to help them assess situations and decide on further action. Such tools, however, are never neutral: they lead actors to evaluate situations in specific ways and so orient their choices. The public authorities are increasingly using such `soft regulation’. But the effects of such tools are often uncertain, in part because the public authorities are not the only actors mobilizing such instruments and because each actor is the target of many, potentially contradictory, ‘soft regulations’.

The current change is transforming the art of governing, which is developing in accordance with a less hierarchical logic and involving a greater number of actors. In this way, it transforms and challenges the very functioning of democracy. The pluralization of knowledge claims that are perceived as legitimate, the development of governing instruments that appear less restrictive for those being governed and more accessible for those using them as means of governing, as well as the growing number of participation devices, may be seen as enhancing the democratization of policy.

But we must take into account the actors’ unequal resources for critically assessing the information conveyed by knowledge-based governing tools or for making effective use of such tools. We must also bear in mind that the less central role of democratic institutions of governance means increased complexity, invisibility and relative indecipherability of the processes actually guiding the future of collectives.

In such a context, much greater reflection on the nature of knowledge and its mobilization in policy is required. Specific forms of knowledge and ways of knowing become hegemonic: we have to ask, in particular, whether the use of (international) comparisons as a mode of governance has not attained an excessive legitimacy and whether it is not time to work towards a diversification of the types of knowledge conveyed by the knowledge-based governing tools.

The issue of debates is also important: the quality of public debates and the diversity of voices that can be heard in them is a crucial element for the renewal of democracy in the new governing situation. One possible way of redefining the role of the public authorities would be to make them responsible for setting up debates not only on public policies but also on other types of collective actions. Everywhere, debates should be opened up more widely to all stakeholders (in particular the weakest actors and those with less legitimated knowledge), so that all the knowledge mobilized there is seen as a view from somewhere, not a view from nowhere. Conditions need to be created that are conducive to the making-explicit and the understanding of points of view rather than to confrontation. Finally, connections need to be made with interdependent debates.

DELVAUX Bernard & MANGEZ Eric, Governing (by) knowledge (2010), The Parliament Magazine.

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