The roles of experts in the educational policy-making process

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The different roles and forms of expert intervention in the policy-making process tend to structure the relationship between knowledge and policy, (i.e. what type of knowledge is involved and how it is produced, received and disseminated).

Although not a recent phenomenon, the importance given to experts (individuals endowed with scientific and technical knowledge) in education-based policy-making processes has been on a constant rise over the last decade. It is in this context, and keeping in mind the specificity of Portuguese reality, that it is possible to identify the main roles played by the experts in the educational policy-making process: as rein-forcement of the State’s techno-structure; as mediators for “politicians”, administrators” and the social environment; as responsible for the rationalization of policy-making; and as a source of ”compensatory legitimation” of the State’s action" [1].

Regarding the first aspect (techno-structure), it is important to underline that they tend to behave more like “enlightened administrators” (saying what should be done and how), rather than “committed scientists” aware of the reality, identifying alternatives and supporting their accomplishment; this is due to the type of duties entrusted to these experts.

As for the second aspect (mediation), expert intervention focuses on measures geared towards “professionalizing policy-making”, which, up to now, have been in the hands of ”amateurs doués” (according to Michel Crozier, 1997, p.28), and professionalizing the relations between administrative agents and politicians (see Finger et Ruchat, 1997 on this subject). This intervention often occurs in disputes between the “politician” and the “administrator”. On the one hand, the expert is summoned by those representing political power to compensate for the “relative autonomy” of the administration and work around its “resistance” in order to achieve desired changes in the government. On the other hand, he/she aims at compensating what is deemed to be a “lack of professionalism” on the part of the administration in the policy-making process.

As for the third aspect (rationalization), the expert and his/her scientific and technical knowledge, is mainly used to “rationally” ground the policy-making process. However, this instrumental function is also coupled with (and sometimes mainly is) a symbolic function. On the one hand, the use of experts (researchers, university professors, auditors, etc.) is a sign of sophistication of the policy-making process. The value of its use has nothing to do with the studies performed or the results obtained. On the other hand, the supposed “objectivity” of sciences and the “neutrality” of the techniques enable the policy-maker to take shelter from controversy and debate, which are an integral part of public action, thus, contributing, in line with what Habermas affirms (1983), to its de-politicization. Finally, the intervention of the expert and belief in his “rationalizing” action leads to the creation of a sentiment of trust on the part of the citizen in the ability and legitimacy of the political authorities to positively interpret common grounds and choose suitable solutions for his/her satisfaction (see Giddens, 1992).

The fourth aspect (compensatory legitimation [2]) is the result of the State’s legitimacy crisis in education which is rooted, amongst other factors, in the loss of credibility and trust in an overburdened and inefficient government by the citizens. In order to recover that trust and credibility, the state acknowledges its obligation to broaden the “policy-making nucleus” and create mechanisms for participation. However, this expansion of “policy-making nuclei” (through multiple advisory councils, monitoring committees, and negotiating boards) and the development of participation (through decentralization and autonomous partnership processes) jeopardize the State’s control over stirred sentiments, the methods used and the public policy results obtained. In order to remedy this paradox, calling on experts to collaborate in the definition of policies helps create a legal space for participation, thereby substituting the democratic debate to a scientific one. As Rui Gomes says (1991): “This is how typical participation mechanisms and political consensus are replaced by technical consensualization, allegedly based on the principles of the untouchable scientific rationality. This stage consolidates the dominant justification model of political agents: the latter do not justify their actions as wanting to do what they do, but as not being able to do anything else” (p. 191).

[1] The foundations and characteristics of this classification are presented in Barroso (1997).

[2] See Weiller (1996).


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