So what exactly is a technocrat anyway?

What is a ‘technocrat’? And why are technocratic governments all the rage these days in Europe?

Mario Monti
Greek Prime Minister and ‘technocrat’ Lucas Papademos was previously an economist and banker [Reuters]

The sky is falling! The Euro is collapsing! What can we do? Look, up in the sky: it’s a bird! it’s a plane, it’s… technocratic government!

Destined to save small and large European countries alike, we have now been graced with the sudden appearance of technocratic government as a deus ex machina in Italy, where economist Mario Monti has been named prime minister and Greece, where economist Lucas Papademos has been named prime minister.  As the hero of our day – the technocratic government – is largely unknown to many of our readers, we summon the spirit of Greek drama for a brief dialogue on technocratic government:

Q: What’s a technocratic government?

A: To answer this question we first need to be clear about how governments are formed in parliamentary systems, which are what we find in both Greece and Italy (and most advanced industrialised democracies outside of the United States).  Unlike in presidential systems – where the president is largely free to choose the ministers he or she wants in the cabinet – in a parliamentary system the government must be approved by the parliament.

Often this will require the agreement of more than one political party, resulting in a coalition of parties to support the government. As part of this “coalition agreement”, the heads of ministries (or what are called Secretaries in the United States) are allocated to the different parties, who place representatives from their parties as the heads of their respective ministries. Moreover, the parties agree on a “Prime Minister” to head the government, usually but not always from the largest party in the coalition. Most of the time, the identity of this “Prime Minister” – conditional on election results – is known during the election campaign.

Q: Ok, so what’s a technocratic government?

A: Technically (no pun intended), a technocratic government is one in which the ministers are not career politicians; in fact, in some cases they may not even be members of political parties at all. They are instead supposed to be “experts” in the fields of their respective ministries. So the classic example is that the Finance Minister would be someone with an academic background in economics who had worked for years at the IMF, but has not previously run for elective office or been heavily involved in election campaigns.

Q: Is the Prime Minister also a “technocrat”?

A: In some cases yes, but it doesn’t have to be the case. You could have a prime minister from a major party who heads a technocratic government (i.e., most of the ministers meet the definition laid out above), or you could have a technocratic prime minister as well. In the case of both the Greek and Italian governments, however, the Prime Minister is both a technocrat and an economist. [To be clear: there is nothing in the definition of a technocratic government that requires it be led by an economist!  A political scientist would be a nice choice as well…]

Q: Why do countries appoint technocratic governments?

A: The practical reason is often because a government has lost the support of parliament, but for various reasons (including legal, pragmatic or political), it is not yet time to hold new elections. If the parties in the parliament can’t agree to form a normal government, then sometimes they can all agree to support a temporary technocratic government. When a technocratic government is appointed for a particularly short period of time just to get the next election, it is also known as a “caretaker government”.

Just to make things even more complicated, it is possible to have a partisan caretaker government (which is basically what is going on in Slovakia right now), which would not be known as a technocratic government, but instead is often called a “lame duck government”.

Q: This is not quite the story in Greece and Italy, is it?

A: Well, we’ll see if they turn out to be caretaker governments as well, but, no, that’s not the idea behind the Greek and Italian technocratic governments. For now, these are cases of technocratic governments that are simply given a mandate to rule like any other government in a parliamentary system. So as long as they can continue to enjoy the support of their respective parliaments, they can stay in office.

Q: So why would elected politicians ever turn over power to unelected technocrats? Doesn’t that go against the grain of everything we think we know about politicians: that they are above all else interested in holding elected office?

A: This brings us to the crux of the matter in terms of current developments. What seems to be going on is that a “received wisdom” is developing that only technocratic governments can carry out the “painful reforms necessary” to save Country X. The theory here is that no major party is going to want to pay the costs of instituting painful policies alone. If this is the case, then one way around this predicament is to appoint a technocratic government that is not “of” any party but is supported by all the parties. In this way, blame can essentially be shared, and government can do the right thing, whatever that may be.

Q: Does it work?

A: I really don’t know, but there are good reasons to be skeptical. First, politicians are not particularly good at “sharing blame”, which will make the temptation for any of a number of major parties to undercut the technocratic government for political gain omnipresent. Second, even if mainstream parties get behind a technocratic government, that doesn’t mean extremist parties will as well. Indeed, a technocratic government supported by all of the mainstream parties seems to me a perfect recipe for the rise of non-mainstream parties. [As a closely related aside, this is exactly what Radoslaw Markowski and I found happened in Poland when all of the mainstream parties supported EU membership.] There is some research showing caretaker governments spend less than normal governments, but the authors suggest that this is due to the reduced authority of these governments, not any special abilities of caretaker governments to cut spending and/or implement austerity packages.

Q: OK, but even with those caveats, technocratic government still sounds pretty good! Why doesn’t everyone have one?

A: Well, there is this one minor problem, which is that in democracies people are supposed to elect their rulers. Since, by definition, a technocratic government does not run for office, it is sort of hard to call a country with a permanent technocratic government a democracy. Instead, you’d end up with a system where the people only get to vote for people who then get to vote on who the real leaders of the government are. Which, if you stop to think about it, sounds quite a bit like the original set-up of the Electoral College in the United States…

Q: Could the presence of technocratic governments in Greece and Italy embolden the Egyptian military (or future would-be democratisers in the Middle East and North Africa) to avoid democratic elections in favor of a “government of experts”?

A:  Hmm…

Q: Bottom line: will technocratic governments save Europe?

A: They may make it possible for certain policies to be implemented in the short-term. But Europe’s longer-term problems are going to need to be solved (or not be solved) by Europe’s elected officials. Democracy is about accountability. While it may be possible to duck accountability in the short run, long-term policies are going to have been enacted – or at the very least maintained – by elected officials.  These technocratic governments might turn out to be quick fixes for short-term problems; it would likely be a mistake to assume they will be anything more than that.

Joshua A. Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the award winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage, where an earlier version of this article was posted. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.