What happens when expert and public opinion clash?

9 December 2019
SERIES Ideas, reflections and advice from future think tank leaders 17 items

Something that has always interested me is this: should policy priorities be based on evidence promoted by policy support organisations (like think tanks) or public opinion? And what happens when these are fundamentally opposed? In many countries, like Nigeria, public opinion often trumps evidence, with politicians keen to win votes. This means that think tanks will have to start engaging the public to get their evidence listened to.

Cost-benefit analysis vs values and beliefs

A simplistic example to illustrate this potential dilemma is public expenditure – a central policy issue with substantial impact on the public.

The government can look to the research sector for evidence. For example, a think tank may use a cost-benefit analysis to make recommendations, such as those conducted by the Copenhagen Consensus Center,+ to identify the programmes/sectors that return the best value for every dollar spent.

Alternatively, policymakers can rely on public preferences to prioritise which programmes/sectors to invest in. In democratic settings, voters can express their fiscal policy preference by voting for either conservative or liberal candidates and their manifestos. In addition, periodic opinion polling can reveal pubic preferences.

The public’s preference may be radically different from the position of the think tank. A good example of this is the case of energy subsidies in Nigeria. Public opinion is at odds with experts’ views.+ The public view subsidies as their share of the country’s oil ‘wealth’. Whereas, the evidence suggests that such subsidies, worth over USD 13.6 billion in 2011, disproportionately benefit the well-off.+

In these examples, the think tank policy positions offer more efficient or cost-effective choices. The public’s preferences on public expenditure, however, come from a position of lived experiences coupled with beliefs about the value of such spending for their well-being.

Politicians are incentivised to go with their voters

Politicians are often happy to sacrifice the empirical think tank evidence in favour of public opinion. The incentive structure for politicians is to veer towards popular policies, as they rely on popular votes to remain in power. This practice is prominent in Nigeria where political considerations trump other social or economic considerations, as this article explains.+

Think tanks need to convince the public

In settings such as Nigeria, where the culture of relying on evidence is under-developed, it is vital that think tanks build a strategy around public engagement.

This strategy should aim to keep the public informed on pertinent issues as a way of influencing their perceptions and eventually enabling them to take evidenced-informed policy positions.

At the same time, it should aim to mobilise their voices to complement the policy advocacy efforts of the think tanks.

Incorporating citizens’ voices in think tanks’ evidence

Incorporating citizens’ voices in evidence generation is not so straightforward. To what extent should the pulse of the general public be monitored and taken into consideration by think tanks? How much influence should the public have over the research? Some thinktankers may cringe at the challenges of trying to combine ‘expert’ and ‘lay’ evidence.

For think tanks in settings like Nigeria that want to develop a strategy around public engagement, building trust with your public by giving them agency will be critical. Engage them beyond just provision of information by seeking greater collaboration. Trust will be the foundation upon which evidence from think tanks can be accepted by the public.

Another way to build trust is to work with the public to ensure that their concerns are understood, considered and reflected in your research. This will encourage them to support the experts’ policy advocacy effort.

You can also stimulate demand for evidence by pointing out clearly not just how ‘good’ sound policies are but also how ‘bad’ poor policies can be.

A combination of trust and public support for think tanks and other policy support organisations may be the catalyst for driving progress towards a more evidence-informed policymaking landscape.