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The technocratic empiricism of the Obama administration

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Duncan Needham.

In 2008, future head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Cass Sunstein claimed of a prospective Obama presidency that: “in his empiricism, his curiosity, his insistence on nuance, and his lack of dogmatism, Obama is indeed a sort of anti-Bush.” For Sunstein, and for many others, an Obama presidency would dispel the instinct and ideology driven policy making of the Bush administration and replace them with policy making dictated by empiricism. But the empiricism Sunstein had in mind was necessarily of a particular sort. It was an empiricism based on randomised control trials and data.

In this paper I will chart the implementation of this new technocratic empiricism. I will outline how this new technocratic empiricism became manifest, particularly around three different, but linked, policy clusters: evidence and behavioural based policy, open government, and big data. By examining programmatic statements and policy documents, I will also explore some of the key ideas behind these changes. This will point towards a set of ideals in which data rules over politics. This rests on a particular idea of what is possible with data and of what knowledge for policy should look like. This means I will also explore these changes as examples of Sociotechnical Imaginaries. Through the language of imaginaries, evidence and behavioural based policy, open government, and big data can be drawn together as a new way of reimagining decision making and a new set of relations between state knowledge and the private sector. It is an imagination of a future in which decisions are non-political, in which optimisation rules over deliberation, in which problems arising from irrationality are smoothed, and in which certain aspects of government are further decentralised.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Seminars series.

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