Why localism is the antidote to our problems with experts

Aug 5, 2016

One of the standout moments of the EU referendum was Michael Gove’s declaration that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts.’ The comment attracted much criticism from the press, with Mr Gove accused of pursuing Trump style politics, celebrating ignorance, and encouraging a sinister form of anti-intellectualism.

A more favourable interpretation would be that Mr Gove was making a valid point, hence why it resonated with the public as it did. Yes expertise is important but there is a certain group of people – bureaucrats, academics, and economists – who we have a habit of calling experts when in many respects they are the opposite.

Expertise requires knowledge. Friedrich Hayek argued some seventy years ago in The Use of Knowledge in Society that knowledge is very widely dispersed amongst the people. That is why central planning is so limited in a free economy – people with local knowledge (of people, conditions and special circumstances) can often gain an advantage over somebody with much higher levels of theoretical or technical knowledge. In other words, no matter how well-educated the political class, the collective knowledge of the whole population will far exceed their general knowledge.

Hayek’s argument probably goes a long way in explaining why the public ignored the expert forecasts about the costs of leaving the EU. A Treasury economist can use statistics to make general points such as ‘each household will be £4,300 worse off a year if we leave the EU’ but they will never have enough information about each person’s circumstances to say what would happen to them individually. In the case of Brexit, the economist would need to know what industry each person works in, where they live, what types of public services they use and how leaving the EU would affect the future choices of that person. All of this contextual information is very important. However it is unknowable to a bureaucrat in Whitehall which is why most people probably looked at that £4,300 figure and thought it too abstract to be credible. There were also significant question marks about the modelling that the Treasury used in costing the Brexit scenarios.

Another way of putting all this is to say that it is each of us individually who are the real experts. We are in possession of the information that is most relevant to our lives.

The EU referendum certainly exemplified the expert problem. A Policy Exchange paper released this week shows that decades of rule from Whitehall has made us more vulnerable to the errors of experts. Our heavily centralised political system with its  remote bureaucracy and top-down management methods has on occasions helped to cultivate an expertise in failure and waste.

Consider how we make government policy. Bureaucracies tend to rely on statistics and numbers when making decisions and in doing so they overlook some very important bits of contextual information. For example we often talk about worklessness as a bad thing  but ignore the potential benefits of a parent staying home to raise their children instead of relying on substandard childcare. With young people, politicians and bureaucrats have tended to place great emphasis on academic credentials because it is something that can be measured remotely while underplaying the importance of individual character (punctuality, being able to speak to an adult and staying motivated) which is equally important. And in welfare, we focus on how often people should sign-on or the number of jobs they have to apply for but we know that most people find jobs through their social network – something that most of the long-term unemployed lack.


And when these so-called experts try to implement reforms they tend to obsess about structures: new institutions, management positions, guidelines, or technology are introduced in the belief that top-down changes can dramatically improve performance. Rarely do these programmes live up to their original expectations. According to the Institute for Government, a think-tank, central government has tried to join up public services at the local level no less than 59 times over the last 19 years without it delivering a substantial improvement in services. Universal Credit (UC), the flagship welfare programme that aims to streamline six existing working age benefits into one, will now not be fully rolled out until 2022 – a full 11 years after it was first announced.

There is however one way of protecting us from these non-experts. Hayek’s theory on the limitation of central planners meant he was an advocate of localism. He argued that public services should be run by the lowest level of government. Localism can help to ensure that services properly reflect local need and allows for the experimentation of different delivery methods by local authorities.

It is this form of local first, bottom-up, decision-making that is the potential antidote to many of the problems within our current political system. Localism breaks down siloes, brings decision-makers closer to the people, and promotes practical planning rather than politics. The negotiations over a 7 day consultant contract might have dominated the headlines this year but one Trust in Northumbria has had a 7 day NHS since 2004. The Trust was able to negotiate a 7 day deal with consultants, within the existing contract, precisely because it was managed small-scale and driven from the bottom-up.

The government has already taken some positive steps towards devolving power to local areas and the introduction of regional Mayors in 2017 will give localism momentum. But these areas will need additional capability to make proper use of their new powers and budgets. At present, the Civil Service is still a London-dominated institution – over 70 per cent of senior staff are based in London. So as we move to a more decentralised political system it makes sense to distribute this capability more evenly across the country. Policy Exchange believes that the goal for this Parliament and the next should be to transfer 25,000 (around one third) of London’s Civil Servants into the regions. This would very quickly bring bureaucrats much closer to the real experts – we the people.


Damian Hind

Economic & Social Policy Research Fellow Read Full Bio

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