Policy and Politics: How expertise trickles down in a multilevel system – smoking prevention policy in Swiss member states

Policy and Politics: How expertise trickles down in a multilevel system – smoking prevention policy in Swiss member states

Céline Mavrot and Fritz Sager

Against the backdrop of the current US-American presidency, the Brexit referendum campaign and the decision of the Hungarian government to drive its university of highest repute- the Central European University- out of the country, the fake news epidemic and the related question of the relationship between scientific evidence and democracy are all over the academic agenda. Scientific evidence generally is expected to make policies more coherent: addressing the right target groups, increasing the efficiency of their implementation and increasing their effectiveness. In her recent blog on the subject, Caroline Schlaufer goes beyond this functionalist view of scientific evidence and argues that the use of scientific evidence has also been found to improve democratic debates: Evidence-based arguments make democratic campaigns more rational. Informed citizens are reluctant to attack opponents on a personal basis which increases the deliberative quality of the discourse. However, this is not all. As we argue in our recent article in Policy & Politics, the use of evidence can encourage coherent policy formulation over different tiers in federal systems by creating vertical networks of expertise.

The question of how to promote expert-based agendas and evidence-based solutions through the political process has always deserved attention in political science. In fact, in many policy sectors–for instance, health or environmental–there are expertise-based policy solutions struggling to be heard often suffering from a lack of prioritisation, conflicting interests of many kinds, or politicization processes that block the whole issue. This is what we observed in the policy sector studied in our article, which focuses on the most recent evolution of smoking prevention policies in Switzerland as a federalist state.

Switzerland is an optimum state within which to study multilevel dynamics. It has one of the most federal political systems in the world with extensive capability at the member state level (cantons). The cantons are responsible for the implementation of federal law with the right to adjust federal law to the particularities and needs of individual member states. This autonomy leads to great differences in the actual policy delivery at the member state level. It also leads to hurdles during this process and consequently to inconsistent compliance with those policies. To mitigate these inconsistences, the strategies deployed at Federal level allow for some flexibility in the implementation of their policies. For example, there are Federal policy programs that incentivize member states to adopt proposed measures rather than mandating them. These strategies aim to encourage member states to adopt policies in line with Federal objectives without binding legislation. Tobacco control is an example of such a strategy.

In the example of the smoking prevention policy, powerful economic interests that are well represented at the national level in parliament, and a perceived lack of need for intervention have prevented the adoption of some efficient policy instruments. The most salient example is the frequent failure of reforms regarding structural prevention in the national parliament over the past fifteen years, e.g. the ban on tobacco advertising or strengthening the smoking ban in public places. This despite it being proven the most effective type of prevention.

However, in our case study, we identify a particular kind of expert network that can prosper within multilevel systems and is able to take advantage of the multiple entry points provided by such systems to develop policies despite the political deadlocks. These particular networks unite experts from the national and the subnational levels; we call them vertical epistemic communities. These two kinds of experts share their resources: both financial resources and expertise for the experts at the national level, and local knowledge and legal authority to act at the local level for the subnational experts. Thanks to this pooling of expertise and authority, local experts successfully managed to avoid the political arena. Rather, they designed and implemented policies that were mostly located within depoliticized arenas, particularly administrative ones. Also, the member state experts notably succeeded in significantly strengthening structural prevention (i.e., restrictions, bans, controls) at the local level, despite the difficulty in improving it at the national level.

How did this happen? As we demonstrate in our article, the experts at the central government level took advantage of the multiple entry points a federal multilevel system provides in order to achieve their policy objectives. In particular, they employed horizontal and vertical cooperation that is required in federal systems. We label the resulting network as a vertical epistemic community.

The concept of epistemic communities was originally coined by Peter Haas and applies to any ‘network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area.’ More specifically, we highlight three aspects of the vertical epistemic community. Firstly, we see that an emerging alliance between national and member state experts is leading to a new public health logic in the field of smoking prevention: The usual member state ‘learning by doing’ method is being replaced by a strongly evidence-based approach under the leadership of vertical network of national and member state level experts. Secondly, whereas member states previously limited themselves to rather loose horizontal coordination among themselves, we are now observing a harmonization process as a result of the vertical epistemic community’s coordination efforts, where member states are managing to adopt policies that were blocked at the national level. Thirdly, when analysing the vertical epistemic community’s mode of action we see how it shifted the centre of gravity in policymaking from the political to the administrative level.

In summary, our study examines a stimulating case about the circumstances under which a policy-making process manages to rely on expertise despite the existence of strong adverse political interests. It sheds light on the way administrative experts from different levels can create a vertical alliance (financial resources and expertise in exchange for a local entry point) that allow them to partially bypass political arenas during the policymaking process. Against the current backdrop of lack of trust and belief in expert voices, we suggest that the concept of the vertical epistemic community might be of central relevance in investigating how expert strategies can take advantage of multilevel systems, whether it be in federalist countries or in supranational systems such as the European Union.

Céline Mavrot is a researcher at the KPM Center for Public Management of the University of Bern. She specializes in the history of Public Administration and policy research and evaluation, especially health and prevention policies. Fritz Sager is a professor of political science at the KPM Center for Public Management of the University of Bern. He specializes in administrative studies and theory, the analysis of Swiss politics, and policy research and evaluation.