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A Matter of Trust – Political scientists at the University of Potsdam research the concept of expert authority

Experts among themselves. At the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Photo: FAO/Giorgio Cosulich de Pecine.

Experts among themselves. At the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Photo: FAO/Giorgio Cosulich de Pecine.

The World Bank does it; NATO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations do, too. International organizations give concrete policy advice to their member states. How this advice is received and followed says a lot about how the organizations are seen and whether they are deemed experts. In their current project, political scientists are researching how this impacts national and international politics.

It came like a thunderbolt: On October 26, 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared in one of its reports processed and red meat carcinogenic and recommended curbing its consumption. “When I came home that day and told my wife about it, her first reaction was: ‘Oh, we have to reduce our meat consumption,’” says Dr. Per-Olof Busch, post-doctoral researcher at the Chair of International Organizations and Public Policy. For the political scientist, this initial, spontaneous announcement encapsulated a phenomenon in his current research, one transferable to global politics: expert authority. 

But what is expert authority? “It is a fairly complex concept,” Busch admits. The project “Consideration of Expert Knowledge – International Public Administrations as Policy Experts” examines how international public administrations such as the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) use their expert authority to make policy. The project’s research team consists of chairholder Professor Andrea Liese, researchers and Ph.D. students Jana Herold and Hauke Feil, and Dr. Busch.

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the FAO all have large staffs at their disposal. “The United Nations employs around 12,000 people,” Busch says. Specialists refer to the pools of experts with distinct thematic focuses as “public administrations”. They are the source and basis of expert authority; they generate, evaluate, and analyze knowledge as well as offer concrete advice that is then disseminated to their member countries. How this advice is received – whether questioned, verified, assessed, or adopted without resistance – has to do with expert authority.

The common perception of international governmental organization work is that “member states decide what is done and how,” Busch says. “We do not necessarily assume this.” The researchers are testing their hypothesis of whether it is the expert authority of the organizations themselves that makes them political players, an aspect hardly studied to date. “Nobody has really measured expert authority.” Consequently, little is known about when, how, and why expert authority is relevant to national and international politics, what its potential is, and what its limits are. To find out more, the researchers are examining the role of the public administration on a global scale at the World Bank and other international institutions.

Policy advice is the instrument of choice for organizations

This project is also new territory for researchers Hauke Feil and Jana Herold, who have had to do a lot of research to get the ball rolling. Which policy fields should be addressed? Which organizations are suitable? How do you get in touch with the relevant actors? How do you develop a statistically evaluable questionnaire? These and many more questions had to be answered by the research team before the actual research could start.

Agricultural and financial policy seemed to be particularly suitable for their studies. “These themes exist in industrialized and developing countries,” Jana Herold explains. “We wanted organizations’ policy fields and themes to be identical to ensure a direct comparison.” The selected organizations also need to be globally active and give policy advice, since this is what the project is all about.
The team ultimately selected six agricultural and 15 financial policy organizations. Their influence will be examined with the hope of making representative statements about them.

The research focuses on the perception of the policy advice disseminated regularly by international governmental organizations to their member states. This advice touches both on broad fundamental problems of humanity and on specifics. In 2011, for example, the FAO recommended introducing financial incentives for small farmers to sustainably increase production. The OECD recommended Colombia implement a comprehensive tax reform to boost its economy. In 2014, the IMF argued in favor of a green tax on carbon dioxide. Such advice is research-based. “The staff researches certain issues, monitors global developments, and draws conclusions. For instance, they compare their member states’ approaches of dealing with various issues: Which were successful? Which were particularly cost-efficient?” says Busch. Having a global perspective enables international public administrations to gain an expertise beyond that of national institutions.

Policy advice is published in the form of research papers and reports. Sometimes it is disseminated by the media and thus available to the general public. International governmental organizations, however, also invite representatives of national ministries to meetings or workshops to present the results and conclusions of their studies. “Informal channels play a major role here,” Busch says.

Asking the right questions

Establishing whether the experts’ policy advice falls on fertile soil requires diligence. The political scientists from Potsdam first had to randomly determine to which 120 countries to send their 20-point questionnaires in German, English, French, and Spanish. Numerous phone calls followed, hours of online searching, and hundreds of emails to identify the relevant contacts for each topic at national authorities and ministries. This sometimes demanded a great deal of patience: “Some states do not have a functioning website, or its information is outdated,” Herold describes the challenges. Ultimately, 960 questionnaires have been mailed to the appropriate people all over the world, the first of them in December 2015.

“The challenge in designing the questionnaire was that we have to beat around the bush a bit,” Busch says. Of course, you cannot ask: “Do you unreflectively adopt policy advice?” The answer would surely be “No”, even though things may look different in reality. “We avoid this by asking about individual elements that give us the right clues.”

In this way, the researchers ask whether policy advice is heeded at all, the extent to which it influences political decision-making, and whether international public administrations are actually perceived as experts. A strong statistical correlation between expert status and the adoption of policy advice indicates “expert authority” to the researchers. “The stronger the correlation, the greater the expert authority,” Busch says.

Now everything depends on how many questionnaires will be returned to Potsdam. Some questionnaires will have had quite a journey. “Some letters will take a month to get to their destination – one way,” Feil estimates. “In all likelihood, we will be waiting three to six months.” For the statistical evaluation of the project, the researchers will need a minimum number of replies. “It would be nice if at least 50% of the questionnaires are returned to us,” Feil says. “It won’t be easy, since crisis-stricken countries such as Syria and Libya are among them,” Busch points out. “There is the risk that we possibly don’t reach all of our project aims.”

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Andrea Liese studied political science, law, sociology, and German literature in Frankfurt (Main). She has held the chair of International Organizations and Policies at the University of Potsdam since 2010.


Universität Potsdam
Fachgruppe Politik- & Verwaltungswissenschaft
August-Bebel-Straße 89, 14482 Potsdam
E-Mail: andrea.liese@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Dr. Per-Olof Busch studied political science in Berlin. At the University of Potsdam, his research focuses on the role and effects of international institutions, international organizations, and public administration.


E-Mail: per-olof.busch@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Hauke Feil studied political science in Bremen as well as international studies/peace and conflict studies in Frankfurt (Main) and Darmstadt. In his PhD project, he is analyzing the determinants of successful development projects.


E-Mail: hauke.feil@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Jana Herold studied business administration in Mainz as well as development economics and international studies in Erlangen and Nuremberg. In her PhD project, she is analyzing the work and policy advice of international agricultural organizations.


E-Mail: jana.herold@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

The Project

The research project “Consideration of Expert Knowledge – International Public Administrations as Policy Experts” is embedded in the research group “International Public Administrations. Emergence and Development of Administrative Patterns and their Effects on International Policy-Making”.
Participating research institutions: the University of Potsdam, the University of Konstanz, Technische Universität Darmstadt, Freie Universität Berlin, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer.
Funding: German Research Foundation
Duration: 2014-2017

Text: Heike Kampe, Translation: Monika Wilke
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
Contact Us: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de