Michael Gove, education reform and why the rise of so-called experts is poisoning national debate

Most of the people who want to change things don't know enough to do it; while most of the people who have that knowledge don’t want to change a thing.

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The Independent Online

Don't judge me for this, but one of my closest friends is an investment banker. He's a lovely fella – kind and generous and entirely in favour of progressive taxation – but we do have a recurring argument about the best way to prevent his industry from screwing up the world for the rest of us.

And – I always lose. Because, while I'm a bright enough guy and I read and all that, I fundamentally know a lot less about banking than he does. I might very well be coming up with stupid suggestions that are utterly unworkable. Then again, he might only believe what he does because he's inside the system, and so has a vested interest in making sure the banks stay exactly as they are. Either possibility is plausible – and I have absolutely no way of knowing which is right.

The Expert Problem

Scale this up from an argument in a pub, and you've got our entire national debate about banking reform.

Call it the Expert Problem: Most of the people who want to change things don't know enough to do it; while most of the people who have that knowledge don’t want to change a thing.

That's not the whole story, of course (the dominant free market ideology plays a part, too). But nonetheless, a rational fear of derailing a major part of the economy makes it easier for ministers to leave the banks as they are. And so, by and large, they do.

Ministers feel no such reluctance when it comes to the public sector – but the Expert Problem applies there too, all the same. The BMA, which has cleverly made everyone forget it's a trade union, has historically greeted any proposal for change as the sort of granny-killing lunacy that could threaten the entire foundation of the NHS. Sometimes they're probably right – but the fact they make the same hysterical statements whenever GPs don't get a pay rise suggests that, a lot of the time, they’re just posturing. For those of us outside the health service, it’s all but impossible to know which is which.

Or consider the ongoing enmity between Michael Gove and the teaching profession. Gove rants about declining standards, and hurtles from one set of radical reform to another. The teaching unions reply that standards are just fine, and that his enthusiastic deckchair shuffling is making things worse. Are they right? Haven't the foggiest. What frightens me is that I suspect Gove is in exactly the same position.

For the likes of me, this is annoying. But for those who have to actually make policy it’s potentially crippling. You can see a problem, you want to fix it, but the people best place to tell you how also have a massive interest in things staying exactly as they are. Too often, the result is either paralysis, or terrible policy.

What to do?

So what do you do? One approach is to effectively ignore the experts and plough ahead regardless. By throwing everything at academy chains, free schools, Teach First and so on, Michael Gove is doing everything he can to create a parallel teaching profession, more amenable to his way of doing things. But it’s not clear how well this will work in education: the idea of importing a more pliant medical profession is clearly barking.

Another option is to co-opt a few experts, bringing them into government to take your side. That, though, is likely to cost: bankers won’t work for civil service salaries. More importantly, just because they now work for you, doesn’t mean they’ve changed their opinions about the best way of doing things.

That leaves you with another, depressingly common option: bring in outsiders that know more about a sector than you do but haven't been entirely captured by it. If ever you wanted to know why governments throw so much money at management consultants, this is as good an explanation as any.