03 April 2017

When international bureaucracies become strategic actors

Because of its exponential production, knowledge is more than ever questioned on its truth as well as on its political and strategic role. This new volume, The Politics of Expertise in International Organizations: How International Bureaucracies Produce and Mobilize Knowledge (Routledge, 2017), is a crucial contribution to our understanding of the way global policy agendas are shaped and propagated. More details from the editor, Associate Professor Annabelle Littoz-Monnet.

This book is the continuity of your precedent works. But why this interest in the link between knowledge and administration?

Yes, this book elaborates upon the research which I formally conducted on global governance and on policymaking dynamics. As I was conducting my research on the way policy problems are solved and the role of policy ideas in framing controversies, it became increasingly clear to me that it is difficult to understand global policy dynamics without examining the connection between knowledge and policy.

Some ideas are more important than others due to their authoritative dimension. Why is that so? Is it the results of strategic wishes deployed – for instance – by lobbies?

Of course some ideas prevail over others. First, what constitutes expert knowledge is itself the object of negotiation amongst relevant stakeholders in a given issue domain. Policymakers and knowledge actors themselves may vie and compete to assert their own conceptions of what constitutes valid knowledge and a good specialist. Second, we often observe policymaking dynamics in which knowledge actors and policymakers interact and develop common understandings of given problems. In such circumstances, it becomes difficult to identify unilateral mechanisms of influence, either of knowledge on policy, or of policy on the production of knowledge. Several contributors to the volume decipher specific mechanisms of interaction between scientists, international bureaucrats and other actors who may be involved in policy in given domains, revealing how such communities act as loci where knowledge and meaning about policy problems are produced.

Why did you choose to study international bureaucracies?

I decided to focus on international bureaucracies because “evidence-based” policymaking has imposed itself as the best way of evaluating the risks and consequences of political action in global arenas. Although this turn has also taken place at the domestic level, international organisations have, in the absence of alternative, democratic, modes of legitimation, heartedly adopted this approach to policymaking. International bureaucrats insist that their policies and programmes are “evidence-based”, “rational”, and founded on neutral expertise. In the literature on international organisations, however, little is said about how, why and when international bureaucrats use expert knowledge and where that knowledge comes from.

You say that bureaucracies have become strategic actors. Can you explain that? Does it mean that they compete with political actors? Is this a risk for the global democratic order?

International secretariats are organisations which have specific policy agendas. And they can use various strategies to further their preferences and gain autonomy from their member states. The production and mobilisation of expert knowledge is one of them. Because international bureaucracies. Because international bureaucracies can best legitimise their existence, their expansion into new domains and their specific policies by producing and using knowledge that is both unique (in its comparative form) and highly technical (quantitative and highly specialised).

Of course, when one points to the autonomy of international bureaucracies and their ability to mobilise knowledge in order to boost their authority, or their capacity to act, this raises questions concerning the legitimacy of such institutions to perform policymaking roles. Some contributions in the volume argue indeed that the capacity to govern has shifted to technocratic elites in transnational organisations and, ultimately, that a technocratisation of politics has taken place. In this light, international bureaucracies participate in a broader paradigmatic shift, in which efficiency, narrowly defined, grows into the only measure for determining what “good” policy is and policymaking comes to be an essentially technocratic exercise.

What is the originality of your work in relation to what Haas has shown about the political role of “epistemic communities”?

Instead of assuming either that expertise is first produced and then enters into politics, or that policymakers fully control processes of knowledge production and orient it in view of pursuing specific interests, the book sees expert knowledge as produced through processes of interaction between policymakers and experts. The production of knowledge is usually negotiated amongst different sets of actors within international secretariats and in between international secretariats and the web of actors which surround them.

Scientists circulate between various sites and affiliations, in these spaces of interaction between science and international policies. They may work for several organisations at the same time or change roles over time. Intentionality may thus become hard to trace in processes of knowledge production, given the complexity of the policy process, the density of interactions amongst all the actors involved in policy and the multiplicity of relevant decision-making venues in a given issue domain.

Thus, the knowledge-production process is rarely one of linear order from research to decision, or from decision to research, but a set of interconnections and back-and-forthness which cannot be captured by simple causal mechanisms.

Has this volume opened up further research avenues?

I would like to work on processes of knowledge production, which are not sufficiently explored in political science. We have great works conducted by sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers of science, and science and technology scholars on this question, but political scientists have touched upon the issue only superficially.

Full reference: Littoz-Monnet, Annabelle, ed. The Politics of Expertise in International Organizations: How International Bureaucracies Produce and Mobilize Knowledge. Global Institutions Series. Abingdon: Routledge. 2017.