There is a lot of stock invested in the wisdom of experts.  There is a strong degree of faith that circulates in many aspects of government that ‘experts’ are the ones to solve problems.  And this is often the case – policy makers are busy people, they have to make decisions and stay tuned to politics; they can’t be expected to understand lots of complex information, not when there are probably around 10-10,000 people who are recognized in each particular field.  As a result, they have to use experts.

Experts are used in many forms.  We have expert witnesses in our courts; whose opinions and eruditions can literally change the course of a court case.  We use experts to scrutinize our leaders – when the Prime Minister announces a new policy an expert – either from academia, industry or a think tank are asked for an opinion on the subject.  Often, one expert is bought in with an opposite view to another and a ‘healthy debate’ ensues.

In futures analysis experts are used frequently.  People with deep specialisms are selected; by an analyst, policy maker, facilitator or futurist and asked to attend a meeting to discuss the future.  In such a meeting, a collection of experts are treated to a range of futures techniques.  For example, the following quote illustrates what sort of exercises they might undertake to think about the future (taken from Governing the future 2007)

“Let us assume you are standing on the bridge of a ship. You scan the horizon (Horizon Scanning) and see an iceberg and your supply ship. You work out the likely speeds and direction of the iceberg and supply ship (trend analysis) and put the information into the ship’s computer (modelling) and then plot a course (roadmapping) so that you meet with the supply ship and not the iceberg. While you are doing this you dream of eating some nice chocolate that you hope is on the supply ship (visioning).

You realise that the speeds and directions of the iceberg and the supply ship might change, so you work out the range of options to make sure you have the greatest chance of meeting the supply ship (scenarios). Even with all of this planning, you know there is a chance of the unexpected and hitting the iceberg so you get the crew to do an evacuation drill (gaming). While they are doing it, you work back from the most likely future position of the supply ship to work out the steps you need to get there (backcasting).”

So, say you were an expert in Particle Science, you could attend a session on the future of nano materials and use any of the extensive futures techniques to come up with a view of what the future could look like (without perhaps visioning eating chocolate whilst trying to avoid icebergs).  You would probably be amongst say 10-20 others, perhaps more in plenary, but most probably in small groups to enable a facilitator to undertake these exercises with you.  You would probably be amongst a few other experts in your discipline, but for effective cross-fertilization of ideas, you’d probably be mixed up with a few others – say a biologist, an industry expert and perhaps a computer tech person and then a few others.

This would give you a transect – a focus group of ideas.  And this is a great way to generate ideas.  You’ll get ‘spark off’; if properly facilitated – ideas will form as people take ideas, discuss them and share opinions.  There may be conflicts; but if properly handled, such ‘warm discussions’ will perhaps pull out further ideas or difficulties.  Creatively, this can be very important for a project and can stimulate a wide range of interesting ideas.

A focus group is just as the words describe – it is a group focused on a particular issue or project.  Such a group of experts does have, collectively, more knowledge about a particular subject area than a policy maker could possess on their own; but that doesn’t represent the truth – it’s just a slightly larger sample of more informed people.

Lets take particle science again – a futures session with 20 people as a sample size.  In the whole field there are probably be an estimated 500 million people in employment regarding particle science.  Of these probably around 50 million could probably be regarded as experts of some particular discipline.  Lets say, in the UK accounts for around 10% of that, so around, 50,000 people in the UK could be attributed an expert status in accordance of some aspect of particle science – be it quantum physics through to underwater wood welding.  So, as a basic analysis, your sample using a focus group of experts is 0.04% of the total population of subject matter experts in the UK.

Here I’ve been slightly unkind, there are other techniques you can use – you can interview, survey and correspond with a wider group of experts.  You can widen your lens significantly, probably out to around 1000 or perhaps even 10,000 which is an effective way of using experts because of the size of your sample.  But, if you don’t have a large pool to draw from expert opinion is still just that, it is still opinion.  An analysts opinion which has been formed from three months of scrutinizing data on a particular issue may be just as valid as an expert who has thirty years experience in the field, this is why as a technique, the use of expert focus groups needs to used with care.

As a means for generating ideas properly facilitated focus groups with experts are powerful.  But for being a reliable source of what will happen in the future, perhaps less so – unless the assumptions the group is making and the overall analysis of the ideas to produce the implications are presented.

The real challenge in using experts comes in how the experts are handled – through facilitation, and how what they say is recorded in the drafting.  The process of taking expert ideas and thinking and crafting them into meaningful, evidence based policy is a challenge, but it is something that new initiatives like open policy making can be used to improve both the power of futures analysis, but also the overall honesty and reliability of our assessments.