The trouble with experts


I don’t know everything.  There, I’ve finally said it – there are things which I simply don’t know.  I don’t know how to perform open heart surgery, I don’t know how to land an aeroplane in an emergency and I don’t know how to make Piers Morgan likeable.

I don’t feel bad about this lack of knowledge though, because for all the things I don’t know (except the latterly mentioned Piers Morgan conundrum) there are other people out there who do know how to do these things.  For each of these problems and for many, many others there are experts who have spent their lives (or at least 10,000 hours) learning about a specific topic and becoming the people who deliver solutions.

And then on the other hand are those people who speak with authority on subjects, yet have little to substantiate their attitudes and opinions.  Admittedly this is more of an immediate issue when faced with heart surgery or a descending 747, but in the less extreme world of local government these individuals have the ability to cause more pain, confusion and blockages than a street bought burrito after a night out.

I will use a recent experience to demonstrate my point here, but please don’t think this is confined to any single field of work; these people and attitudes permeate every service and level of local government.

I recently spent a day of my professional life hearing from some people I respect immensely talk about social media and their experiences with it.  They clearly set out their positions, their qualifications (and by this I mean why they should be listened to, not their degrees, doctorates or swimming badges) and context before sharing their insights into what is an emerging field.

I say emerging as the technology itself is a blip on the historical local government radar, let alone our understanding of how it could and should be used in so many ways.  We often forget that Twitter and Facebook, the two current main players in the social networking world, were only launched in 2006, whilst the behemoth that is YouTube hosted its first video in the dim and distant days of 2005.  When we live in a world where the same processes and rituals in local government have been followed for decades and perhaps even centuries, even the most stalwart social media supporter would have to admit that it’s all a little bit new.

To put it into context, had you begun your first job at the age of 16 around when Facebook launched, you would now be 22 years old.  Twenty two.  This means that you will have had access to this tech for your entire working life, yet will still have only six working years on the clock.  With all the advantages you have had from growing up with these systems as a natural part of your life and being a relative digital native, surely you would be well placed to call yourself an expert, right?

Well, probably not really.  Admittedly this is a bit of a crude comparison but adhering to the 10,000 hour rule, even if you had spent every single working hour dedicated to this, and assuming a normal-ish working week of 35 hours then you will have spent 9870 hours on social media.  Odds of anyone having been in this position?  Pretty low.

Most of the panel I heard from acknowledged this and in fact made a positive out of it.  They all accepted that they should not be regarded as experts as such, merely people who were doing it at the moment and sharing their learning.  One speaker went so far as to make a point of highlighting this fact, reminding the audience that it was us who was actually more likely to have expertise in this field.

It was with some surprise then that one of the panel stood up and to the untrained eye spent their 17 minutes (and at least 9 of the next panelist’s) telling us that pretty much they had it nailed.  From a legal standpoint they explained (amongst other things) that they don’t like social media, that it causes problems and that Facebook is evil for collecting information about us in order to try to make the adverts we receive more closely match our interests.

For those in any doubt as to their level of expertise, they also went on to regale us as to the virtues of Second Life and to tell us how it was actually a useful platform for us to use in order to encourage people to stop walking into our real life one stop shops and into virtual ones instead.  They spoke with some passion on this and cited the fact that Greece has investigated this area heavily, although they almost let down their pitch by mentioning that they don’t actually know what MMORPG stands for (which is normally nothing to worry about, unless you are pitching something which acts, looks and feels exactly like one).

After essentially putting across that social media causes all sorts of problems they then informed us quietly that they don’t actually have a Facebook account, nor a Twitter feed, nor have they ever really used social media.

Hmmm…

They didn’t stop there however.  They said that what government needs to do is act more like the Isle of Man by bringing all of its disparate systems and tools together under one portal where users could go to for information and to carry out the tasks which they have to do.  They also need to strip back all the info that they ask for, as well as getting over the idea that online is always easier; after all, they themself have filled in a certain form for forty years, they know how to manage the post office queues to get it, how to complete it and how to return it in time for the desired outcome to happen a few weeks later.  They insisted that in that situation the online version of this would be too confusing and wouldn’t save them time at all.

Thankfully the room had moved on to the ‘smile and wave’ state of attention long before this, but that people like this ‘expert’ are out there and preaching to others in this manner concerns me.  This person was someone who had agreed to attend and speak at a conference where they knew there would be a knowledgeable audience, yet still felt able to firmly state their angle and expect everyone to agree with them.  They had no clue as to the recent GDS work, such as gov.uk, which aimed to do all they were insisting that government was not up to.  They didn’t accept that the online form would definitely be easier and save them time, despite the fact that they were told so by multiple members of the audience who had used just that e-form successfully and happily, and they saw nothing but negatives around the use of Facebook and other similar tools.

Whilst this particular audience knew that they were wrong, what if the next audience isn’t quite as knowledgeable?  When someone who appears to be articulate and considered stands up and with confidence tells you that something is so, if you have little knowledge with which to challenge them and refute their claims then you are actually inclined to agree with them.  Had this person been speaking to a room of senior officers who had been on the fence about whether or not to open up social media to their staff, they would have been left in no doubt that perhaps the world would end after all (unless of course the second life option was taken up).

To use another Game of Thrones quote, “you are only what others say you are”.  If some people say you are an expert in a certain field then others believe this, and therefore believe that what you say is as close to the truth as is needed.  If you truly do know your onions then brilliant, but when you get people who don’t use a system themselves, who have nothing substantial to back their claims up, who have not done even the most basic research but who have an opinion and an angle and are able to confidently articulate this to groups of people then you have a dangerous combination.

When going to others for advice and to learn from their expertise, be sure that you are actually going to someone who has some.  Ask around for others’ opinions (we find Twitter is a fantastic way of doing this) and above all don’t feel as if you cannot question them yourself.  If anything anyone says to you sets off a little bell of warning, heed it; no-one ever got stupider for asking questions.

And if you are touted as an ‘expert’ in your field, be careful with your status.  You are putting yourself out there as a thought leader and opinion former; where you lead others are likely to follow.  If you are making up the route as you go, at least tell people this openly, otherwise you’ll end up leading a lot of people in circles and down dead-ends, which helps neither them nor you.

And for heavens sake, at the very least jump on Google and do a modicum of research!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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10 Comments on “The trouble with experts”

  1. Phil Mason Says:

    Superb post, thank you!!! I love the thought “no-one ever got stupider for asking questions.”

  2. Loulouk Says:

    Sir, I concur.

  3. Headhunter Says:

    A shame that the target of your ire is unlikely to be reason this!

    There’s a similar problem: that of the (genuine) expert who thinks that they don’t need to learn anything to transfer their expertise from a different sector into local government. I had an absolute train-wreck of a meeting once with someone who thought that their (actual and undisputed) expertise in one domain could transfer unaltered into local government, and in fact gave off the impression that local government was jolly lucky to have them taking an interest. A different issue but also one to look out for, I think.

  4. Headhunter Says:

    Damn you autocorrect! I meant “reading” not “reason” in my post above

  5. UleyGirl Says:

    The trouble with experts is………….we often pay them twice as much to give the same advice we’ve been giving for years. But everyone listens to them. If the advice is good or not. Cheering post :)


  6. [...] We Love Local Government A blog looking sideways at life in local government « The trouble with experts [...]

  7. markbraggins Says:

    Wonderful post. I SO wish I had been there – not for that speaker – but the event sounds fascinating. Just as well it was attended by a bunch of bloggers and tweeters.
    Don’t suppose any of it was streamed?

  8. Paul Taylor Says:

    Love it. How can anyone be an expert in something that’s new and in a constant shift? Great post


  9. Any recorded version of this talk?


  10. [...] were few councils who were truly aiming to make the most of this emerging technology. As we have often remarked, only six years before this post went out to the world, no-one outside of a handful of US students [...]


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