Expert government agencies’ contribution to public deliberation: balancing the need for expertise with political equality

The role of experts in democratic decision-making has increasingly become subject to debate. To explore how relationships between the public and sciences might develop, this project will investigate how government agencies’ efforts to maintain reputations for technical expertise influence public democratic deliberation.

Concern regarding an increasingly ambivalent relationship between expert knowledge and democratic decision-making comes from two directions. One laments the declining legitimacy of expert knowledge. The other identifies risks in experts growing in strength due to scientization of decision-making. Both raise concerns about democratic impacts, where the gap between demands of knowledge and public understanding of science becomes colonized by populists or technocratic authoritarians.

A critical challenge is therefore to find working relationships between the public and science that balance the need for expertise with political equality. Government agencies that produce scientific evidence are pivotal to meeting this challenge. Depending on agencies’ technical reputation, they may contribute to public deliberation, but they may also freeze deliberation by framing debates in narrow terms.

This project will map relationships between publics and expert government agencies through surveys, experiments and comparative case studies. Bridging the intersections of expertise, public opinion, deliberative theory, and government agency reputational literatures, it will focus in particularly on agencies within Health and Environment portfolios in Sweden and Australia.

Principal Investigator: PerOla Öberg (Department of Government)

Period: 1 January 2021–31 December 2023

Funding: SEK 5 756 000 kr from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond