Ignorant rule of the masses or elitist rule of a knowing few? How to organise the knowledge-democracy-nexus
Front cover of Expertise and Participation by Eva Krick

By Eva Krick

It seems indisputable that both expert knowledge and public participation are crucial for effective and democratic governance. At the same time, these key sources of political authority and legitimacy follow distinctive logics and thus tend to draw into quite different directions, casting doubt on their reconcilability: Reliable expertise is elitist by nature in that it relies on specialised insights and is precisely not held by everyone, while democratic participation follows a logic of equality and inclusion that grants access to every citizen – irrespective of knowledge or social status.

Although debates about the tension between the epistemic and democratic dimensions of politics are as old as democracy, conflicts have recently been exacerbated by a range of interlinking societal developments: an increasing reliance on expertise for solving more and more complex and technical collective problems, the detachment of a growing number of ‘de-politicised’, ‘technocratic’ expert bodies from political control, the crisis of confidence in representative channels of democratic participation and subsequent public calls for more direct citizen involvement.

Does this mean we are left with the unsatisfactory choice between notoriously suboptimal democratic rule or elitist rule of the knowers?

My new book ‘Expertise and Participation. Institutional designs for policy development in Europe’ (Palgrave Macmillan https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030753283) deals with the tensions between epistemic and democratic demands to modern governance and points at ways to reconcile them. It zooms in on the policy development phase, during which external actors such as citizens, stakeholders and experts access the policy cycle via structures of policy advice and consultation, and asks how these structures need to be organised to strike a balance between multiple and partly conflicting normative standards.

The book’s first part consists of in-depth case studies of particularly complex, multi-layered arenas of policy advice and consultation that were set up in the field of environmental and climate policy in Germany and Norway and aimed particularly high in terms of knowledge quality, democratic inclusion and transparency.

The cases are pitted against a normative assessment framework that distinguishes between the dimensions of democratic legitimacy and epistemic authority and sets the production of ‘reliable expertise’ and the realisation of ‘democratic participation’ as guiding principles:

Analytical levels:


Normative dimensions (and guiding principles):

a) Participation patterns b) Process of deliberation c) Coupling with the environment
Democratic legitimacy (Democratic participation) Equal involvement of the affected Fair, inclusive and open deliberative procedures Potential resonance of the advice in the political sphere
Epistemic authority (Reliable expertise) Trustworthy and diverse advisors Thorough, reason-based epistemic practice Potentially problem-solving advice

The case studies also identify key practices and mechanisms that advisory bodies use to deal with normative tensions and they provide explanations for the cases’ quite different outcomes.

The second part of the book draws institutional design lessons about three key organisational parameters: the right participant selection mode and the ideal participation structure of policy-developing arenas, the best decision-making rule as well as model transmission mechanisms between representative political institutions and subordinate advisory and participatory bodies.

In a nutshell, I draw the following design conclusions about how to set up and manage multi-level advisory processes that score substantively on both the epistemic and the democratic dimensions:

Concerning the participation structure and selection strategy, I conceive a multi-level structure that consists of a range of interconnected arenas with nuanced decision rights and gravitates around a core committee with full decision rights and responsibility for the final, joint report. In the light of conflicting epistemic and democratic demands and the size restrictions of meaningful deliberations in particular, a good argument can be made that the core committee needs to be mainly composed of a well-balanced targeted choice of intermediary organisations and receive non-binding input from a diversity of academic experts and a range of randomly selected public forums.

As regards collective decision rules in policy developing arrangements, I show that consensual decision-making by the absence of open opposition proves best as striking a balance between epistemic, democratic as well as pragmatic demands of efficient conflict resolution, especially when it is applied ‘in the shadow of majority voting’ in cases of severe obstruction. Majority voting is shown to be inferior in all respects but its practicality, and therefore ranks second best as a stopping rule that brings the decision-making process to a close, while unanimity may be normatively superior but is impossible to realise.

When considering an advisory body’s coupling with its environment, the key question is how to ensure a certain independence of the advisory arrangement from external interference without jeopardising other important epistemic and democratic norms affected by coupling, most notably the impact and relevance of the advice and the accountability of the advisory body. I show that the key for balancing the potentially conflicting standards are loose transmission mechanisms that interconnect the different advisory arenas amongst themselves and with their parent body but avoid ‘procedural control’.

The book draws wider conclusions about the knowledge-democracy nexus and about some of the most ambivalent and contested democratic values, asking the question: Which role can and should consensus, transparency and interest representation play in policy development?

In recent political theory, voices that emphasise the downside of the consensus norm in political decision-making have been notably louder than those defending it, and as a response to these debates, deliberative democrats have refined some of their original assumptions and conceded the problematic, e.g. despotic sides of consensus. I argue that it is important to distinguish between different manifestations of consensus: While compulsory consensus or forced harmony is highly problematic since it tends to cover up conflicts of interests and reinforces power imbalances, a consensus orientation during fair, open deliberations that allow for the expression of conflicts and settling of disputes is not only desirable because it pacifies the process and facilitates compromises. It is also conducive to consensual closure, which has been interpreted as a marker of both reliable expertise and inclusion in deliberative democracy and social epistemology alike.

While the principle of transparency has been attributed a high and nearly uncontroversial status in contemporary debates about legitimacy and good governance, it is important to acknowledge that it is actually not a good in itself, but a demanding doctrine that can yield problematic effects and does not have the same significance in all contexts. As pointed out in recent democratic theory, the idea of open, transparent policy-making in theory conflicts with many other epistemic and democratic norms, most notably the quality of deliberation and the extent of conflict resolution. Besides, an emphasis on transparency is sometimes a cheap way of ‘democratising’ decision-making by handing over responsibility for making the most of it entirely to the public. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the conducted case studies furthermore show how extensive disclosure can have the effect of an ‘information overload’ that obscures rather than paralyses the decision-making process.

Finally, when we are concerned with a reconciliation of high epistemic and democratic demands, the idea of interest representation deserves rehabilitation, in my view. I question the problematic preference for the individual ‘ordinary citizen’ as the voice of the people in public debates and point to the important role of organised civil society for advocating marginalised viewpoints in particular. Intermediary organisations are usually much better equipped to successfully state the case of citizens by pooling, integrating and brokering societal viewpoints than a detached individual that is normally not authorised to speak for larger collectives. When civil society groups are given a key role in policy development, however, notorious power imbalances in the world of interest representation need to be evened out. Starting points can be the democratic distribution of public funding and reserved seats for public interest organisations and less established NGOs, as well as a focus on fewer but more meaningful and balanced participatory and advisory structures.

About the author

Dr Eva Krick works in the field of comparative political science, political theory, political sociology and the sociology of knowledge and science. She is currently affiliated with the Political Science Department at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and the University of Oslo’s ARENA Centre for European Studies. Her latest research focuses on democratic theory, the policy-knowledge-nexus, negotiated political decision-making, citizen engagement and the role of experts in modern societies.


Cover Picture: Front cover of Expertise and Participation by Eva Krick.