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The Relationship Between Politicians and Experts

One of my colleagues recently tweeted ( that as councillors we are expected to question recommendations from staff. This is an important issue I’d like to expand on briefly.

Council regularly has to make decisions that touch on a very wide range of areas of expertise. Some of these issues require specialized, formal education and professional certification: for example, legal or engineering questions. Other issues require specialized knowledge that staff such as in public works acquire on the job: for example, the experience of a sidewalk snow-plow operator in our unusual climate.

Individual councillors cannot make all these decisions from their own knowledge. The City hires staff with special expertise for a reason. It is essential to respect staff’s experience and knowledge. Same goes for external experts who may be hired to consult on something outside of our in-house expertise.

But at the same time, it is a dereliction of duty to simply accept staff recommendations without thinking critically about the impacts. As a councillor I am responsible for every vote I cast; I can’t hide behind recommendations. Too often, a recommendation from an expert is used for political cover to avoid taking a stance on a difficult decision.

Respecting staff expertise is different from accepting recommendations unquestioningly. Often expert advice means something different than it seems on its face.

First, not all staff recommendations concern technical issues on which staff have specific expertise. These recommendations are often sensible and useful, but it is not appropriate for councillors to simply defer to them without exercising independent judgment.

Second, when staff do raise technical points, they are often intertwined with questions of values or priorities. In these cases, elected representatives need to think these questions through for ourselves. While experienced staff with high levels of political acumen can identify many relevant considerations and likely implications, in the end legitimate decisions about values and priorities must emerge from a democratic process and not through expertise alone.

Third, often staff identify a fatal technical or legal objection to one particular idea brought forward by the public/Council, but there is another way to achieve the same objective and they can help make it happen. For example, our municipal legislation is proscriptive in nature so many of the Good Ideas™️ that we suggest are difficult to find a pigeonhole to justify their existence. That then takes a lot of conversation and creativity to find a modified solution to something like the protection of trees throughout the city.

The only way to figure out what the best path forward is is to analyze the professional advice critically, and carefully measure costs and benefits of each possible decision. In summary, we as politicians are expected to ask questions of staff, bring forward alternative suggestions, and not rubber stamp each decision without exercising critical thinking.