Experience, expertise and knowledge: the humane approach

By Jill Segger
January 29, 2018

In December 2017, the Care Quality Commission launched a project called ‘Experts by Experience’. The method is to work with people who have personal experience of using, or caring for someone who may use, the health, mental health or social care services regulated by the CQC. The purpose is to help the organisation better understand and respond to their needs.

This is an interesting development at a time when some politicians have invited us to suspicion of experts and expertise – a move which, in its facile appeal to populism, has had the possibly unexpected malign result of devaluing the true worth of experience. In turn, this has uncoupled the mutually nourishing interaction of expertise and experience.

Direct experience usually has a powerful emotional component. This is attractive to the media and may be presented in an exaggerated and intemperate manner. The ‘human interest’ angle sells newspapers, multiplies clicks and is likely to stay in the memory when facts, figures and analyses have been forgotten.

But experience benefits from analysis and must feed into expertise if it is to have the optimum effect. Expertise must show humility and a willingness to listen to those who are not within the initiate circle of spreadsheets or laboratories. The relationship between expert status and privilege may therefore need to be unpicked from both sides. Immediate and instinctive contempt, each for other, is a recipe for division and stasis.

Experts are essential to government. No politician can possibly cover the detail and complexity of modern governance without their advice and guidance. This may not always suit the convenience of power. But government walks on very dangerous ground indeed if it seeks to engender disdain or mistrust of analytical and professional skills for its own advantage. If you need an example, look no further than the Health Secretary’s attitude towards Junior Doctors.

Because experience is powerful and immediate, there may be a temptation to extrapolate the personal to the universal. This is the cause of considerable injustice of the “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, so why can’t you?” variety. The tendency of the present government to encourage the concept of the ‘deserving’ and 'undeserving' poor in this manner is particularly cruel, giving no consideration to lives very different from those of the majority of our legislators. There is an evident imbalance here and where judgements on the grounds of one group’s experience are made without attention to environments and experiences which disempower, injustice mounts to despair and trust is destroyed. The antidote to such failure is primarily the empathy and humility which should move those who make policy and pass laws to take account of the limits of their own experience. The next stage requires the application of logic through analysis – with expert assistance where needed – to verify the humane response.

Three and a half centuries ago, George Fox recorded a profound spiritual experience in these words: “This I knew experimentally”. That last word has changed its meaning in present-day English. For Fox and his contemporaries, it meant ‘by experience’. The connection with testing and trialling is significant. Taken with Blake’s belief that “The true method of knowledge is experiment”, it seems that the CQC may be on to something.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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