Can experts freeze public deliberation?

By Erik Baekkeskov

May 4, 2018

Woman caught cold , flu, running nose, selective focus on tissue box. Healthcare and medical concept

Even if existing science supports more than one answer to a problem, experts can steer public deliberation in a certain direction. This can be useful in policymaking but it can also lock in certain policies.

Expert advice, particularly around issues such as health, is widely drawn on to improve public policy. Experts can steer public deliberation about policy and help to reduce the risk of policy failure. This expert knowledge can come from universities, research institutes, consultancies, think tanks, public authorities or other organisations.

Yet science need not offer one truth. When existing science can support more than one answer to public problems, what roles do scientific experts play in public policy debates? Can experts in mature democracies ‘freeze’ public deliberation about issues?

The case of the H1N1 flu pandemic

In April 2009, the World Health Organisation declared the H1N1 ‘swine flu’ a public health emergency of international concern. The crisis was worldwide front page news and public health responses in many countries required huge investments of public funding along with citizen participation. In a situation such as this, we might expect that a liberal mass media would comprehensively debate all potential policy responses to the pandemic.

Yet a study by Erik Baekkeskov and PerOla Öberg of differing public health responses to the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic in Sweden and Denmark provides important case examples of how expertise can constrain debate in the public arena, even where there is no consensus about the optimal response.

In most European Union countries, a core response to the pandemic was vaccination. Yet national policies on who would be vaccinated differed substantially. Denmark and Sweden are two countries with very similar public health systems. And in both Sweden and Denmark certified experts — virologists, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists who were policy advisors — were crucial in this decision making about vaccination.

Yet while Sweden offered vaccination to everyone (100% of the population), Denmark offered vaccination only to specified medical risk groups, health care workers and people in critical positions (around 20% of the population).

Despite public responses in Sweden and Denmark being significantly different, analysis of print media coverage in the two countries shows that coverage was dominated by one response option. Of claims made by certified experts in the media, 89% in Sweden and 92% in Denmark were consistent with their country’s national policy.

‘Freezing’ public deliberation

Moments of crisis, such as the threat of the flu pandemic, can bring greater pressure on communities of experts to appear consensual. Expert advice is particularly powerful when the scientific community appears to have reached consensus. In Denmark and Sweden, few experts with high status publicly dissented from the national policy stance.

Media actors may also ‘rally to the flag’. They appeared to do so in Denmark and Sweden, overwhelmingly selecting content from experts that supported national policies. These media outlets in either country could easily have sourced dissenting content from the other country, yet instead tended to publicize content that supported the national position.

Expertise can be a useful tool in public policy making. But as the pandemic flu example illustrates, expertise can also serve to ‘freeze’ public deliberation and lock in policy, regardless of best available options for public action.

Erik Baekkeskov is a lecturer in public policy and political science at the University of Melbourne and is affiliated with The Policy Lab.

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