Technocracy: its weakening of politics and possible solutions

12 June 2023

Peruvian economic, social, and intellectual elites have a habit of abandoning public spaces at the first threat to their power. 

Over the last 50 years, they’ve abandoned politics and its institutions – political parties, the civil service, public academia, and the armed forces. And they’ve taken refuge in private spaces such as companies, lobbying, private consulting, private universities, and think tanks.

But elites don’t like to lose all power. In Peru, the intellectual elites found, albeit temporarily, a way to recapture political space through two powerful narratives: the benefits of technocracy and the hatred of politics.

The case of Peru illustrates processes that have also been unfolding elsewhere. I hope to use this as a case study to illustrate why the evidence-informed policy sector must pay greater attention to the broader political system. 

The popularisation of evidence-informed policy

The aforementioned narratives were sustained by another popular narrative, which was embraced in Peru: that decisions on public policy should be technical and evidence-based, not political. 

Unfortunately, it changed the explicit course of public policy in Peru and in other parts of the world with weak political systems. The sometimes abstract pursuit of justice and the fair allocation of resources were set aside in favour of the more narrow and tangible pursuit of efficiency. 

In Peru, this narrative translated into means-tested public spending, conditional transfers, and our obsession with quantitative indicators of progress. 

The narrative was popularised globally by politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. It was also taught through numerous graduate programmes, which imparted various versions of the new public management models and tools. 

Developed in the 1980s in the United Kingdom and Australia, it proposed introducing business approaches and practices into the management of the state to increase its efficiency.

However, politicians like Blair and Clinton never abandoned party ideology, the values of their constituents, the interests of powerful groups, or political calculations in decision-making. They simply hid them behind the technocratic discourse.

Evidence-informed policy is politics. I wrote this in support of a paper by Andries du Toit, who argued that this is a “way to get rid of political debate”

Perceptions of politicians vs. technocrats

The rise of technocracy and its associated problems has had another practical effect on Peru’s political space and how we, as Peruvians, have approached politics: it’s now become common to talk about and differentiate between technocratic and political ministers. 

I would argue that this process started in the 1990s, when the Fujimori regime launched a war against traditional political actors, partly as a way of cementing his popularity and the public’s perception of him as a technocrat. A political move, as du Toit argues. 

Technocrats were presented as experts and politically neutral. In more recent cases, they have even been labelled as a “luxury”: people we were lucky to have helping us when they could have been in well-paid jobs.

The media also contributed to this by pandering to them, hardly ever questioning their decisions and treating their opinions as irrefutable facts. 

Politicians, on the other hand, were belittled, and were assumed to be inexperienced in the real world or even corrupt: “Why else are they in politics?”, people would ask. 

Traditional Peruvian politicians were often labour union militants or political party members, who held various public positions during their professional lives, and many of them, like most Peruvians, would not have received prestigious degrees. 

Technocrats, on the other hand, typically come from careers in private and/or foreign universities, research centres, think tanks, or from the private sector. 

After almost three decades, technocrats now embody the illusion that we can have an efficient and modern state without the “vulgarity” of politics.

But the long-term impact has been the opposite. We’ve actually ended up with an inefficient state and with truly vulgar politics. Why?

A weakened political structure and class

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The rise of the technocrat has weakened politics by divorcing it from values, ideology, and popular engagement.

The quality of politics – the process by which decisions on matters of public interest are made – depends on the quality of the political actors. Inexperienced or corrupt politicians contribute to inferior politics, which is incapable of resolving public problems fairly and effectively.

However, for decades, several of the main political actors making critical policy decisions have been politically inexperienced. 

This is because the technocrats who have been awarded these positions have only developed competencies specific to their areas of expertise, e.g., academia or business. Thus, they haven’t developed competencies in the political arena (with a very few exceptions!). 

They often lack the skills and experience necessary to navigate the complex dynamics of politics: negotiating competing interests and building coalitions. They’ve also failed to cultivate the values and ideologies necessary to shape a coherent political project or to build popular support.

Combined with a general dislike towards the very idea of professional politicians, the result has been a weakened political class.  One that’s vulnerable to the lure of interest groups, susceptible to corruption, and incapable of advancing a single project of national significance. 

But we can’t improve politics or have evidence-informed policy without politicians. We need them -unless we come up with entirely different political systems.

How the field of evidence-informed policy can help

We need: to invest in political education; citizens to participate in public affairs; to rebuild the institutions of the state; and to strengthen political actors’ capacity to exercise power fairly and effectively. Only then will we be able to build a better future for all.

I realise this isn’t easy for evidence-informed policy funders and practitioners. So, let me offer some practical actions that all actors in the field could take to achieve these goals:

1. Pay more attention to the broader political system

Crucially, this isn’t just a matter of working with current leaders – as it’s often styled. Rather, it involves working with the political parties as well as the current leaders. Like it or not, the parties are the mechanisms that produce future political leaders. 

This could be done by supporting the formation of political party think tanks/research programmes, or by encouraging partnerships between parties and independent policy research organisations. 

As an example, have a look at this course on political party think tanks in Ecuador

It could also be done by incorporating evidence-informed policy awareness and training programmes into political parties’ capacity building efforts. Ideally, this should be done through national electoral bodies, which have a mandate over political parties and often organise and deliver all-party training programmes.

2. Push back on narratives that vilify all politics and politicians

There may not be many, but those that are there need support. E.g., politicians who proactively use evidence (and who use it well) could be celebrated and rewarded. 

In practice, this means revisiting the discourse on evidence-informed policy to explicitly incorporate ideology, values, and politics into how we describe and pursue better-informed policies. 

Political calculations are not necessarily anti-evidence. They can be perfectly compatible with a mature understanding of the political process and the delivery of long-term results. 

3. Funders and policy experts should refocus on political systems

Technocrats have thrived despite a failing political system. Thus, they’ve paid little attention to it and its rapid decline. In fact, sometimes I would argue that they’ve even taken advantage of the failing system by stepping in as experts or consultants. 

But, in the long term, when the system collapsed so did their advantage and any positive contributions they’d managed to make.

This concern for the wider system is consistent with the findings of the  Think tank state of the sector 2022 report

This suggested that Latin American think tanks believe that the political system should be the focus of their research. Governance, corruption, transparency, and accountability were among their preferences. 

Funders need to back this demand from think tanks by providing more funding for research at the political systems level. 

4. Focus on the long term

Funders and policy experts need to pay attention to the long-term gains rather than the promise of short-term change. 

It may take two or three election cycles before the new and strengthened institutions start to take effect – but their impact will stick once they do.

A version of this article was first published on RPP.