The public decision-maker in the face of uncertainty: towards the technical democracy

The generalized uncertainty in which our societies are immersed, combined with their growing complexity, undermines the authority of experts whose knowledge is more easily questioned. This is particularly true for public decision-makers, who are now faced with systematic challenges to their decisions, whatever the field. Understanding the causes and stakes of what some call “technical democracy”, but also its potential dangers, is becoming essential.

For a long time, it was thought that the development of science and technology would reduce uncertainty by increasing our knowledge. This seemed logical, but we know today that it is not the case, quite the contrary. This represents a particular challenge for the public decision-maker.

The authority of the public decision-maker undermined

Two developments are undermining the authority of public decision-makers. First, the increasing complexity of decisions. The development of science and technology makes it increasingly difficult to master the issues. Decisions have to be taken on projects whose consequences will be felt for decades; in other words, no one can predict them. Many of the proposals in these subjects are simply undecidable. No amount of additional information will solve the problem. With these complex questions, one touches the limits of the Cartesian logic of decision which assumes perfect information and perfect rational anticipation; one has to decide when one has very little information on the consequences of one’s decisions and when expertise is therefore largely insufficient, and rapidly obsolete. In studying this question, the sociologists Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe note three particular difficulties: first, the list of options is not clear. Some are easily identified, but others are ignored, more or less voluntarily. Specific work would be needed to bring out the ones that could be better. This is a creative approach that is closer to entrepreneurship than to expertise in a closed, stable and well identified world. The posture is different. Secondly, the conditions under which each option will be able to function, and in particular the components of the system that will allow it to function, are not identifiable. Thirdly, the interactions between these components are not identifiable either.

The second evolution that undermines the authority of the public decision-maker is the fact that citizens, better educated and better informed than previous generations, now have their own expertise, or counter-expertise, and are no longer prepared to accept the expert’s verdict without challenge. In the past, the power of the expert was based on an asymmetry between his knowledge and the ignorance of others. He must now deal with them. A good example is provided by the determined action of parents of children with muscular dystrophy who have forced research to take an interest in the disease, which had been neglected until then, and who have become essential actors in it, or the emergence of Covid Tracker, an initiative in France for the provision of real-time data about the epidemics by an individual with no link to public health agencies. Citizens (and employees in the workplace) now have broad access to the means of information that allow them to become experts. Expertise can now be found everywhere.

Good bye to the Alexander model of the public decision maker (Source: Wikipedia)

This evolution can naturally lead to abuses if the information is erroneous or deliberately distorted (fake news), as we have seen with the opposition to the vaccination against Covid-19. It sometimes seems that the ignorance of some is put on the same level as the expertise of others. An additional difficulty is that in situations of uncertainty, the distinction between what is false and what is true is often difficult to establish. For example, the hypothesis that Covid came from a leak in a research laboratory in Wuhan was long considered absurd, if not a conspiracy theory, whereas it is now considered serious. This uncertainty allows any thesis, even the most fanciful, to be defended, in the name of “you never know”. The development of social networks also allows it to quickly find an audience and its defenders to meet.

Science and technology are therefore no longer manageable by the political institutions we have, insofar as these historically derive their authority from the asymmetry of expertise. They are therefore weakened. First of all, we must accept that expert knowledge is not the only possible knowledge, but above all that these major questions cannot be resolved solely by calculation. They always have political, social and ethical dimensions. To ignore this evolution of things is to expose oneself to hostile reactions that can be very strong. This is what happened to the Monsanto group, which thought of the introduction of its GMO products in purely technical terms and completely failed to anticipate the strong opposition, justified or not, that its products aroused.

The questioning of the Alexander model

We are therefore witnessing the challenge of what Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe call the “Alexander model” of decision-making, where the expert draws his sword and cuts the Gordian knot of the complex problem on the basis of knowledge that he alone possesses. From now on, the male warrior’s assurance must be replaced, not by inaction, but by measured action, the only action possible in situations of extreme uncertainty. Above all, this action can no longer be taken without the parties involved in the decision. Indeed, if the decision in the face of uncertainty can no longer be made on the basis of objective criteria of knowledge and predictive calculation only, because the questions cannot be reduced to a calculation, it can only be made subjectively, i.e. by agreeing with others, on the basis of values at least as much as on the basis of facts. This corresponds to the emergence of a “technical democracy”, which consists in involving stakeholders in the decision: patients for medical decisions, local residents and farmers for the treatment of nuclear waste, etc. Stakeholders are thus associated with the decision in a process of co-determination of the future. This evolution is not simple: the decision will take more time, or even risk being blocked, and it is not easy to identify the stakeholders in a problem: for example, who should decide on traffic restrictions in Paris: the inhabitants of Paris? The people of the Ile-de-France region, because Paris is also the capital of the region and many of its inhabitants come to Paris or pass through Paris to work? or even the French, because it is the capital of the country? But by its very process, the decision is more anchored and better accepted. We know that a decision is better accepted if we have been involved in its elaboration. It is therefore more robust. For the experts, this is a revolution, and like all revolutions, it is a difficult step to take. No one willingly experiences a decrease in power.

Learning from entrepreneurs to decide in uncertainty

In so doing, technical democracy should not fear controversy. On the contrary, it is an appropriate response to the growing uncertainties generated by technosciences, a response based on the organization of experiments and collective learning. If we cannot know a priori, we must act. We thus find, in the idea of technical democracy, two strong notions of effectuation, the logic of action of entrepreneurs: the involvement of stakeholders in the project to co-create the future, and creative action rather than a priori calculation. Once again, we can learn a lot from entrepreneurs about acting under uncertainty, including when one is a public actor.◼︎

➕To read more about uncertainty and decision making, see my articles: 📄What the Coronavirus Tells us About the Management of Uncertainty; 📄How I Learned to Stop Worrying (about Rules and Procedures) and Love Ambiguity and Uncertainty.

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