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19 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 8:56am

Britain isn’t tired of experts, but they’ve got a struggle on their hands

New polling shows that trust in government has risen, but it hangs by a thread. 

By Emma Norris

During the EU referendum, Michael Gove now famously declared that the public “has had enough of experts”. Both leave and remain camps made some questionable claims during the campaign, but the idea that citizens have given up on evidence and experts is strongly contradicted by new polling released today by the Institute for Government.

Our polling shows that over 80 per cent of people want politicians to consult with professionals and experts when making difficult decisions, and to make decisions based on objective evidence. The number has actually increased since we asked the same questions in 2014. What’s more, there was no real difference between Leave voters and Remain voters in this. 

The government should take note of the fact that the public want policies based on evidence. Whether on the expansion of grammar schools, high-speed rail or social mobility, people will want to see that the rhetoric of big policy announcements is grounded in the realities of evidence. In fact, our polling suggests that people are tiring of big announcements altogether (only 4% of those asked thought they should be a priority for politicians). Instead, they want to hear more about how policies are going to be implemented. This means pressure will be increasing on the government to provide details about how key policies on the economy, immigration, public services and social mobility be delivered. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ might not cut it for much longer.

But the public appetite for evidence does not mean experts are off the hook.

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Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks, a polling and opinion research organisation, told a recent Institute for Government event that people will still reject arguments – no matters how firmly grounded in the facts – if those facts don’t cohere with people’s individual lives. Graphs showing immigration has on balance benefitted the UK economy will not be enough to convince someone in a low-skilled job who feel they have lost out. Appearing to ignore individuals’ experience simply leads to people rejecting arguments put forward by experts who talk about overall or aggregate trends. Experts were warned they need to start from where people find themselves if they are to be credible.

Experts should not assume they have the trust of citizens – they have to earn it. And people are more likely to trust experts they are already familiar with – people who have built up trust in advance of big moments like the EU referendum. Will Moy from Full Fact, the independent fact-checking charity, argued that the reason Martin Lewis, the “money saving expert”, was the most trusted voice on the referendum was because he had already proven himself as ‘credible, authentic, and identifiable’. People believe he is on their side. Experts who are parachuted in, with no track record, are unlikely to cut much ice. Given this, more needs to be done to anticipate the information citizens will need at big decision points including elections and referenda, to ensure high quality data is available and that trusted institutions are communicating it effectively. This is the subject of a new project that Full Fact is launching with statisticians and researchers.

People have not had enough of experts. But the onus is on experts to make sure they get heard.

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Emma Norris is programme director at the Institute for Government.