I distinctly remember the first time I wondered if I had become the “foreign policy elite.” It bothered me.
In the political backlash that led to the Tea Party and the election of President Trump one hears distain for Washington experts. Have I become part of the problem, part of that elite?
At WOLA, our internal mascot was a skunk. It was often our role to be “skunks at the garden party” – close enough to policymakers to be invited in, but carrying a challenging message, something that made them uncomfortable. We embraced this positioning.
When last I posted, I mentioned that the “professionalization” of advocacy – good salaries and the provision of benefits – had allowed those entering the field to build a career. A result of this longevity was that NGO advocates, like me, became true experts in our fields. This is a good thing, because for an outsider to be invited to the garden party you need to be expert.
Having people outside of government who understand how it works – or doesn’t – is good for democracy. It means that people in the NGO sector can help hold government accountable and build solutions to problems. This is especially important in fields where normal people don’t have the time to search out and digest supposedly public information.
I often joke that in DC you get points for sticking around. You have value because you accumulate that rare thing – historic memory. DC is a transitory place. People come and go with election cycles. Many congressional staffers are young and have plenty of hubris, having landed influential jobs, but few points of reference. People in the non-governmental sector, don’t serve two or four year terms and can play an important role in educating people who make policy and the journalists who inform it.
In this environment someone who knows what happened yesterday is valuable. But becoming an expert requires hard work as well. I spent years learning about US military programs with Latin America. I did research, submitted official requests for information, and built relationships with congressional committee staff, people in the Pentagon, the State Department, the Southern Command and journalists. I stepped into a field where NGO experts did not exist and I became one.
There was one elusive Senate staffer that I got to know well. I was told that she had a work rule. Because of the overwhelming nature of her job, she could get the information she needed from 10 people or 100 people. Not able to manage 100 she chose 10. I was one of them. Being an expert gave me real influence.
So I’m wondering what the yin is to this part of the professionalization yang? Is there something constructive that I should take from the reaction against experts?
One frustration that I have felt is that I spend too much time talking with the same people. Washington briefings are designed to bring experts into a room so they can debate to each other. There is often live streaming, but these briefings are seldom designed to inform a broad audience. And, we use a lot of jargon that excludes from the conversation people who might want to participate. I think that experts talking with other experts can become isolated from a broader audience and seem, if not be, elitist and condescending.
While we must have experts in and outside of government, both sectors need to remember that they serve the broader public and that public is outside of the expert bubble. In particular, we NGO experts need to be sure that we don’t get lost in our own influence. We need to remember why we became skunks – to make government understand a problem from an outside perspective.