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Generalist Johnson and specialist scientists prove the need to get along

The writer is professor of business and public policy at Oxford university’s Blavatnik School of Government

We have had a love-hate relationship with specialists in public life since at least the 2008 financial crisis, when many felt that the experts had failed us by not anticipating the subprime debacle. This year, when coronavirus hit, specialists (epidemiologists this time, not economists) were lauded as omniscient heroes.

Three months later, politicians grumblingly dismiss them as eggheads stuck in their silos — particularly when it comes to the economic damage from lockdown — or “national hibernation”, as UK prime minister Boris Johnson called it when relaxing restrictions in spite of misgivings from the scientists.

The problem is not with specialists — it is that the generalists, who must call the shots in public policy, often fail to understand how to use specialist expertise. Governing is a generalist’s task.

Our Master of Public Policy degree educates those who will serve in governments in over 100 countries. We are a training ground for generalists. When I explain it to some fellow academics, they recoil. Many view the term “generalist” with scorn and pity. Scorn because a generalist cannot possibly have anything useful to say as a jack of all trades; and pity because the generalist is seen as not being good enough to specialise.

But being a good generalist is difficult; few have the necessary skills. In fact, many effective specialists, as they gain perspective and experience, become generalists. German chancellor Angela Merkel is the exemplar.

Three skills in particular characterise a good generalist. First is the skill to navigate uncertainty. Here, economist Frank Knight’s distinction between risk and uncertainty is useful. Risk refers to measurable unknowns, of the sort tamed and framed by the models of a specialist. Uncertainty refers to unknowns that cannot be quantified or neatly boxed into a specialism’s conceptual framework. Generalists have the judgment to manage under uncertainty, for which specialist knowledge is not particularly useful. This quality is rare: most people become discombobulated when faced with deteriorating certainty.

The generalists’ second distinguishing skill is inductive pattern recognition. Inductive reasoning — forming a generalisation based on incident, observation or facts — gets a bad rap among experts because, by definition, it cannot be formalised and predictably replicated. But recognising possible patterns in seemingly chaotic situations is the first step to diagnosing, framing, and prioritising problems under uncertainty. Without this skill you cannot manage or govern.

The third skill is silo-bridging — connecting the work of experts. What a specialist does is offer a prediction (if A, then B), based on an underlying model that makes causal statements, “other things being equal”. When a prediction is applied to the real world, it is not isolated in this way. The generalist then comes in — using judgment and experience to forge prescriptions from different specialisms into a policy decision.

I trained as an economist, applying my knowledge to solve problems in corporate governance. Even in this narrow field, well-trained specialists are acutely aware of their limitations — our economic models make simplistic assumptions about the behaviour of investors, managers, and employees. When those assumptions are relaxed, our predictions do not hold. The same is true for any specialist: beware any who argues otherwise.

Here’s an example. Until recently, the UK seemed alone among its longstanding security allies in accepting Huawei’s presence in the country’s 5G infrastructure. Perplexed, I investigated. One likely reason was that ministers listened to a particular set of specialists — telecom security experts, framing the problem quite narrowly from within their discipline: can the risk of malicious code be curtailed?

But, of course, a policy issue such as whether the UK should use Huawei 5G equipment requires much broader input; it is the role of generalists in government to seek those inputs. Experts on national security, trade and computer security who I spoke to had varied and nuanced views; I suspect they were under-represented in the decision-making.

Writing on the division of labour in society, Adam Smith noted the value of people “whose trade it is . . . to observe everything; and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects”. He called them “philosophers”, which is perhaps a stretch for many of our governing generalists today; but it is an aspiration from which we cannot afford to shy.

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