Panel Paper: Policies Without Publics: Issue Expertise in Policymaking

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 10:25 AM
Salon III B (Ritz Carlton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Peter May, University of Washington and Chris Koski, Reed College
We consider the role of policy expertise in advancing policy understanding for problems that do not garner widespread attention or the concerted involvement of organized interests.  This political world is illustrated by policymaking for public risks like the loss of biological diversity, threats to cyber security and critical infrastructures, and potential catastrophic natural disasters.  Policymaking for such problems is frustrated by a least two factors.  One, given limited political incentives for addressing the problem, is a lack of inertia.  A second is the uncertainties associated with problems for which the consequences are temporally remote and potentially widespread. 

What influences the contours of policymaking for such problems?  We theorize about and demonstrate the influence of various types of issue expertise drawn from academic settings, the bureaucracy, industry, professional associations, and think tanks.  Much of the literature about issue expertise in policymaking suggests federal bureaucrats who deal with a given problem day in and day out are primary sources of expertise.  Yet, some scholars suggest bureaucratic influence has waned as various advocacy groups and other interests have become more professionalized. 

Our empirical investigation of the role of expertise in this policy environment is based on a case study of critical infrastructure protection policymaking in the United States between 1995 and 2009.  We study the participation of different types of experts in congressional hearings and analyze what experts inject into the debates about these issues.  Our data encompass 204 congressional hearings involving 1,112 witness testimonies.  We contrast the treatment of the more salient issue of cyber security with the less salient issues of other threats to critical infrastructures.  We show how different sources and types of issue expertise are relied upon as part of policymaking.  We find federal bureaucrats are the most common sources of information, but that their role is more one of reporting about current programs and efforts than in defining problems or suggesting solutions.  These roles are more commonly undertaken by research experts, industry representations, and other non-governmental experts.  While as a whole a disparate set of issue experts are relied upon, a relatively small proportion of "hyper-experts" that testify in multiple settings over time provide a basis for forming consistent understandings of problems and solutions.

Our findings contribute to the understanding of policymaking for important problems that are not of major concern to most citizens.  The emphasis on experts adds new insights about the role of expertise and especially in policymaking.  As well, we contribute to the substance of policymaking for cyber security and critical infrastructures.  The work is based on a collaborative NSF-funded project on policymaking for critical infrastructure protection.