Jay Kennedy: Ministers should seek out the experts in our sector

There is a treasure trove of expertise that can help government, writes our columnist

Jay Kennedy
Jay Kennedy

At the Directory of Social Change, we have a monthly meeting at which we discuss policy issues and decide on our positions and approaches. We're fortunate to have many talented, passionate people, and it's always a lively debate. At the last meeting one of our bright young things referred to me as a "voluntary sector veteran" and a good source of policy knowledge. I took this as a compliment.

I've been around a long time: I have a pretty good memory and a good network of contacts. I'd also like to think I have a knack for connecting the dots, seeing the crux of an issue and a way of articulating things to others. I've learned so much from many colleagues over the years, including those who are "less experienced".

I was thinking about this as I read The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols, an expert on nuclear proliferation and a professor at the US Naval War College. His argument is that we need experts and expertise because this allows for specialisation; there are good reasons not to have brain surgery done by a tree surgeon (and possibly vice versa). He contends that we're living in an era in which the value of expertise is under attack.

The current eruption of populism is symptomatic of a kind of feedback loop of ignorance between politicians, media and the public: think Michael Gove's insistence that "people are sick of experts". Experts are getting a bad rap, and might deserve it, particularly academics who sequester themselves in ivory towers. Pollsters, too, have hardly covered themselves in glory recently. Though expanding access to knowledge, the internet has degraded the quality of information and systems for verifying it, helping the spread of misinformation and lies.

What's this got to do with the charity sector? It's chock-full of experts. We've got everything from scientists working on cutting-edge medical treatments and environmental, conservation and heritage pros, to youth workers who turn kids' lives around - and everything in between: people who are basically a living, breathing "institutional memory" for society across any number of subjects. They can often apply this expertise practically, too.

I've lost track of the number of ministers with "responsibility" for sector policy. The number of civil servants who have revolved through the various departments, agencies, quangos and local governments is greater still - of course expertise, and its loss, is critical in these bodies too.

Given the level of turnover, you'd think ministers and officials would delve into this treasure trove of expertise at every opportunity. Sadly, all too often it isn't heeded or even recognised. Worse, it might be treated as a hostile enemy, rather than as a critical source of intel on what's going on and what's needed in society.

We need our political leaders to seek out, listen to and value the expertise in our sector - especially now. If I were in any government department, quango or local council, I'd be "calling in the experts" damn quick. Being indifferent to or afraid of knowledge is a bad place to govern from.

Jay Kennedy is director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change

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