February 24, 2021

Paper Stones – Politicians or Doctors?



As a result of the departure of Salvador Illa from the Ministry of Health and the need to replace him in the context of the pandemic, the public debate has once again set its sights on the suitability of the profiles of ministers to hold a position in the Executive. That is, on whether their training and experience are the most appropriate to lead a government portfolio.

Should the Ministry of Health be piloted by a renowned doctor? Would a successful rural entrepreneur make a good Minister of Agriculture? Should the Economy portfolio fall into the hands of a reputed economist? These types of questions frequently emerge when a new government is formed or remodeled. This approach can be analyzed on two different levels, one taking into account the immediate, intuitive reaction, although loaded with rudimentary arguments (who else will know more than a doctor about public health!), And the other paying attention to the underlying currents in which you navigate. Let us transit for the moment on this second road.

The debate about what type of profile a member of the Government should have, or in our specific case, who should occupy the Health portfolio in the midst of a pandemic, is linked to a deep discussion that goes beyond the context of COVID-19 and that It is about the crisis of representative democracies. The debate points to what should be the role of experts in party democracy, since the latter, regardless of their color, very often disappoint by not being able to fully combine their role of representation (meeting the demands of voters ) with responsibility (achieving good results in the long term based on the interests of the voters but articulating them with the demands of other actors -markets, international organizations, etc.-), all this in contexts of global hyper-interdependence and high uncertainty.

The technocratic response (the rule of the experts) has been defended as one of the possible alternatives to the role of the parties. Should the experts have executive capacity over the ministers or be subordinate to them, informing them in the design of public policies and supporting them in decision-making? We have recently reflected on this matter in this blog (see here).

Leaving aside the central question, but without abandoning an important aspect of the debate, in this post we want to share the results of a recent experimental survey carried out within a broader project on the study of the preferences and attitudes of Spaniards towards experts (financed by the project CSO2017-89847-P of the National R + D + i Plan). In the survey we used a design called “conjoint experiment” in which we basically presented a sample of 2000 people in Spain with two candidate profiles to occupy the Single Command in case of declaration of the alarm state. As we know, this body is in charge of leading the response to the pandemic and coordinating actions between different levels of governments. Respondents are provided with information on gender, age, place of birth, type (if politician or expert), the political party to which they belong if they are a politician, and the area of ​​work in which they Candidates have completed their profession (in our experiment we only offer two options: healthcare or economics). The order and value adopted by all these attributes (if it is a man or a woman, for example) are presented randomly, generating several different profiles from which the participants choose one of the two candidates in a series of five votes. The generation of data based on the randomization of the attributes allows us to rigorously evaluate a posteriori which attributes have had more weight in the choice of the Single Command.

The main result of this exercise is that being an expert is the characteristic that most conditions the candidate’s choice. When the candidate to fill the Single Command If he is an expert rather than a politician, the probability that he will be elected increases considerably (close to 40%).[1] But (attention!), This result occurs regardless of the type of work in which the expert develops his work, since when we analyze the interaction of the attributes, the expert’s work area does not exert a statistically significant influence on the choice of the candidate.

To delve into this last aspect, that is, to understand how the type of professional experience determines the influence of the quality of being an expert versus being a politician, we have complemented the previous exercise with a vignette experiment or frame experiment (framing experiment). This consists of analyzing how different ways of presenting the COVID-19 crisis (whether as an exclusively health crisis or as a health crisis but with very important economic consequences) can trigger different opinions among respondents about the suitability of candidate profiles to occupy the position of Single Command. This conditioning factor, of course, is introduced before of asking respondents to choose between the different profiles and the assignment of frame or frame for each of them (the one that emphasizes the health crisis, the one that emphasizes the economic crisis or the control group) it is carried out randomly.

In summary, the results found tell us the following: as before, experts are still preferred over politicians, but when we present the COVID-19 crisis exclusively highlighting its health aspects, citizens clearly prefer public health experts over experts in economics. The probability that a health expert profile will be chosen is 76% compared to 58% in the case of an expert-economist profile. This result seems almost a no-brainer and surely fits the intuition of many readers. After all, the coronavirus represents a health crisis of the first order. However, the weakness of this preference (that of health workers over economists) is surprising when we analyze what happens when the COVID-19 crisis is also presented as an economic crisis. The probability that a health expert profile will be chosen to lead the response to the pandemic is practically equal to that of an economist expert profile. In fact, that of the second is greater than that of the first (66% and 69% respectively), which means that the kind from an expert becomes statistically irrelevant.

This evidence points to three issues. The first, the considerable extension of the preference for experts in executive positions, as has been pointed out in previous investigations. The second, that the preference for the specific type of expert is manipulable. The third, and related to the latter, that the malleability of the preference for experts is highly conditioned by how the political issue to be managed is presented to the citizens. In this last area, we believe that those who propose certain public debates are aware of the implications of using potentially popular but excessively rudimentary arguments. This use of a technocratic, elitist, anti-party, anti-political argument can undoubtedly generate sympathies but also dynamics that weaken representative democracy.

[1] This finding is consistent with another result that we have also presented in this blog on technocratic preferences during the pandemic (see here).

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