The curse of the experts

Digital governance solutions have to make a clear distinction between experts and expertise and move toward keeping people, groups and communities at the centre of its solution framework

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | November 7, 2015




Remember the name Sir Joseph Paxton before diving in. The Crystal Palace in London is an iconic architectural memory. All that remains are a few black and white pictures and line drawings, but it still makes it to the top 10 of any list of contemporary architectural wonders. For the record, the Palace fell to a raging fire in 1936. It was built in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition, a massive show of British colonial might. It was the world’s first exhibition of industry and culture, and in some ways the first prototype of the globalisation of today with goods and raw material from Egypt to India. For those interested in curious tidbits, there is an exact (but smaller) replica of the Palace in Lal Bagh in Bengaluru. 

The point is not about the quality of architecture innovation or design. Crystal Palace has been consistently making the cut century after century precisely because it’s one of a kind structure, indeed a benchmark of innovation and aesthetics. This is where you need to remember Sir Joseph Paxton again. Paxton, believe it or not, was a gardener, of course a highly decorated and successful one feted by the royalty. He had no past experience of architecture, was never trained in blueprinting and yet managed to create an icon.

Paxton is not a rare case of serendipity. Thomas Bayes is another example. He was an ordinary clergyman whose famous Bayes’ theorem is the foundation for complex algorithms and stochastic analysis used in high frequency trading (HFTs). Thomas Malthus, another clergyman, of the famous Malthusian theory of overpopulation, is yet another example. Bill Bryson in his book At Home makes an interesting point about how amateur enthusiasts contributed substantially to the evolution of modern scientific applications that we take granted for today. One can try and explain this to the environment of that day and age. It was a time where scientists as we understand them today (white coats, bright labs and heavy duty instruments) had not emerged. But that explanation would do injustice to the innate curiosity, mindfulness and the sheer wonder that Paxton, Bayes and Malthus brought to their work. One may now also rue the fact that recreating such a day and age is not possible in today’s globalised and always connected world.

As a corollary to that line of thinking, one may quite possibly come to the conclusion that what this complicated world requires is specialisation and by that extension experts and their expertise. A little bit of digging around and suddenly one would realise, as I did, that neither Gandhi nor Mandela were experts, nor were the likes of the Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis. Neither was the great Verghese Kurien who set up Amul or the countless women entrepreneurs spawned by it. If one thinks about it, all the women bankers seeded by SEWA are also not experts by any banking standards. Come closer to the age of digital technology, and if one were dive deep into the life of Steve Jobs, iPhone should not have happened at all.

Now that we are in an age where digital technology is permeating every aspect of our life, and quite deeply and inextricably at that, there are two questions that I am positing. Both these questions have to be seen in the context of governance, and more specifically in the delivery of services and entitlements from the state. How important is an expert? Where is expertise actually needed? Let’s try and answer the second question first. It’s a given that setting up undersea cables for internet, huge server farms to store information and protocols and standards for accessing them requires expertise. Not everyone can do it. People have to be trained to do it. In some ways, it’s similar to the real world. Not everyone can go and start constructing a road or a building. There’s an organised science and art behind all of this. It’s also a given that some people are obviously going to be better than others, and a few out of them will become authorities. The need for expertise is an absolute need. So when someone holds a mobile phone, for instance, there are generations of expertise and countless man-hours of experts that it holds.

The answer to the first question is little more complicated, and more so if it is directly related to providing governance services, entitlements, benefits and rights to the large groups of people who will have different levels of exposure to technology.  So an entitled person (broadly defined as someone who is someone like you reading this column and someone like me writing it) will leverage our constant and deeper exposure to technology to interface with it and derive benefits out of it irrespective of how complicated it. As a result of our ability to integrate technology in our lives, the subtle but important difference between experts and expertise is not only blurred, but is actually destroyed. In this destruction lies the answer why the penetration of electronic and mobile governance services in rural areas is hitting a saturation point. Access is an expertise that is best left to the community. A good, but offline, example would be manner in which Ralegan Siddhi and Hivre Bazar has managed natural resources within their villages by involving people in mapping water bodies and creating an equitable and just systems of access and leverage. An excellent, and a technology-based social solution, is the way in which SEWA trained women vegetable vendors to become documentary film-makers, thereby bringing in greater accountability and transparency in the local administration. Community radio is another such example.

The simple point is that electronic and mobile governance access interfaces have to be created and managed by the community and the people, especially the marginalised and vulnerable groups. They are the most affected by any dysfunctional systems of governance and if digital governance does not improve their quality of life then the real potential of digital governance is not realised. Today access, especially in terms of involving vulnerable groups and communities are the final sign off authorities on user acceptance test (UATs), is not even there in the horizon of any debates related to provisioning of digital governance services. It’s here that there is a lesson to be learnt from the likes of Paxton, Bayes and Malthus.

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