Really pleased to see that my new article has gone ‘live’: History as expertise and the influence of political culture on advice for policy since Fulton
Here’s the abstract:
The 1968 Fulton report made the case for reforming the civil service to meet the demands of modern government. This article considers Fulton, and subsequent ‘failures’ to implement it, in the context of a changing political culture in Westminster that privileged political advice in policymaking and became ambivalent towards external expertise. It explores whether the Fulton recommendation for the creation of policy planning units in government departments, staffed by a mix of outside experts and talented officials could be reimagined for present purposes, to include historians: history embedded in policymaking is proposed as an alternative to history presented to policymakers.
Keywords: government, policy advice, historians, public history, policymaking
Thanks must go to Prof. Ludmilla Jordanova, Prof. Owen Davies and Dr. Sarah Lloyd for their advice and support, and to the the anonymous reviewers for their careful and constructive comments.
‘It’s the mix that matters’ is borrowed from R. A. W. Rhodes, “The Governance Narrative: Key Findings and Lessons from the ESRC’s Whitehall Programme,” Public Administration 78, no. 2 (2000)
Last week, the post of Historian with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advertised (with the strapline ‘If you’re passionate about the past and excited about the future, consider a role as a Historian in Whitehall’). Historians in government are a very rare breed in Britain, at least in historical roles (historians have been taken on as generalists since the civil service professionalised – and came under pointed criticism as ‘amateurs’ for it from the late 1950s). By contrast, historians working as historians are part of state and federal/provincial government structures in the USA and Canada; the US Society for History in the Federal Government has been around for over 30 years.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the grass is greener for colleagues across the pond. Being a historian in government doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bringing historical thinking into the corridors of power (even walking said corridors doesn’t equal admission to the offices where the major policy decisions are taken). The North American experience suggests recognition as a specialist can be a distinctly mixed blessing. An expert’s influence can easily be limited to those questions relating directly to the area of expertise…
The role of the historian in government is often concerned with research and the management of records: cataloguing papers; editing documents and producing official histories for publication; responding to queries; writing briefing papers on historical topics. In countries such as Canada and New Zealand, historians are also expert contributors to processes that address grievances and claims relating to the treatment of indigenous peoples.
The currently advertised job certainly fits with this editorial and curatorial profile. But the FCO is a particularly interesting case, because a previous historian at the department made the transition from editor of official documents to historical adviser to the Minister.
Rohan Butler (1917-1996) worked at the Foreign Office from 1944, while also a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford. He became Senior Editor of the Documents on British Foreign Policy in 1955, and, in 1959, he was commissioned to produce a history of the Abadan Crisis as part of a Whitehall initiative (‘funding experience’) to learn lessons from the past.
Peter Beck’s careful scholarship has revealed the work of historians at the Treasury and Foreign Office during this experiment. Butler, however, managed to gain a position of influence as a historian (the Abadan history was finished in 1962 and Butler went on to become historical adviser to successive Foreign Secretaries until 1982) – something his Treasury colleagues never did.
Beck states that the Abadan history ‘fed into, guided, and influenced on-going discussions and reviews within Whitehall by juxtaposing the lessons of history, contemporary realities, and possible new directions for both foreign policy and methods.’ Beck somewhat underplay’s Butler’s success, stating that it’s difficult to ascribe a ‘clear-cut outcome’ to the history. But Butler’s work was informing the highest levels of decisionmaking. He was, effectively, a policy adviser as well as a historian.
The job description for today’s FCO historian mentions ‘responding to requests for historical information and advice from Ministers, officials and the public’, but the prospect for a role such as Butler’s seems remote. The salary of £26,363 – £32,834 is well below the range for special advisers and points, perhaps, to a role seen as ‘back-office’ rather than ‘core business’.
We may today lament that history has little influence on policymaking – it might be worth looking back at Butler for inspiration: a historian on the inside.
 Beck, ‘The Lessons of Abadan and Suez for British Foreign Policymakers in the 1960s’, p. 545.
See also: Beck, Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
NB: Butler’s authoritative memorandum on the Katyn Massacre (produced in 1972 and printed for internal circulation in 1973) is now in the public domain with original footnotes and annexes.
Two years ago I published the post below about the new Radio Four series, The Public Philosopher (tagline: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel examines the thinking behind a current controversy’). In a way, I was pointing to a gap: a history gap. As the crisis continues in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine – and claims, counter-claims and denunciations based on the past abound – the need for a forum for ‘questioning the [historical] thinking’ seems even more pressing. Radio 4 has a good, and varied, offering in terms of history programming. But there isn’t really a forum in which a wide audience can debate the ways in which the past is put to use in the present, and on issues that would certainly qualify as ‘current controversies’: welfare, immigration, education, health, foreign policy, the economy.
This week, The Public Philosopher tackled ‘national guilt’:
Imagine a country guilty of past crimes. What obligations do its current citizens have to make amends? In this edition of The Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel poses that question to an audience in Japan. The discussion involves students from Japan and from China and South Korea – countries which were victims of Japanese aggression during the Second World War
It makes for interesting listening, and I’ll definitely add it to the teaching resources for next year, when my International Perspectives in Public History students will look at topics such as school textbooks, citizenship and identity, apologies and restitution, and commemoration, all in comparative context. But at the same time, it made me aware of that yawning ‘history gap’ (or should it be ‘public history gap’?). It’s great that a political philosopher is taking on the important and ever-relevant theme of guilt and apology – but shouldn’t historians be involved in, or initiating, such debates? Which comes back to the question we always ask our public history students: what are the responsibilities of the ‘historian in public?’
The Public Philosopher starts on Radio 4 tomorrow, the tagline being: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel questions the thinking underlying a current controversy’. Change ‘thinking’ for ‘history’ – or even just add ‘historical’ – and you have the pitch for The Public Historian. But would it ever happen?
Radio 4 listeners clearly like their history and historical perspectives, explicit and implicit, are to be found everywhere (for example, the amazing interview with Konstanty Gebert in One to One on the underground press in Poland, in which he discussed comparisons with journalists in Arab spring countries, or Chris Stringer’s highly engaging recollections on The Life Scientific). So audience interest probably wouldn’t be an issue. But what about the academic side of things? Would historians be keen to take on the mantle of The Public Historian, even if the intention was no more radical than to ‘look for the past behind the present’ (the tagline of The Long View)? Or is the term ‘public history’ too contested, too misunderstood, too elusive or even too restrictive in this country?
An interesting discussion starting on Public History Weekly on the (unmet?) promises of the web as the end of hierarchies of knowledge and the power of the digital dissemination – and impact – of research.
It’s relatively easy to point to the digital world as a democratising environment – but, in the case of academic research, do new media really disrupt how knowledge is made and interpreted? Or do they just offer new platforms for broadcasting the products of research, where the process is still held tightly within the confines of the universities and research institutes? Here are the comments I added:
What are the implications of working in an environment in which the new media play a powerful role (however we conceive of how they relate to, coexist with or complement ‘analogue’ scholarship) for the process of scholarship itself? Crowd-sourcing of data and pattern-identification isn’t that new in the sciences, and in the humanities, projects such as Trove in Australia are drawing in thousands of users to correct texts, tag items, upload content and contribute to the interpretation of material.
Nonetheless, old hierarchies, as Valentin Groebner notes – the book, the journal article – persist. Crowd-sourcing doesn’t change where the ‘real business’ of scholarship happens; it out-sources some of the graft involved to volunteer research assistants in cyberspace. Crowd-sourcing is valuable; it undoubtedly has an impact on research and on the circulation of knowledge. But does it fundamentally transform the process of knowledge creation? Mills Kelly is undertaking some impressive, and impressively radical, work with his students that is enabling them to move into the space of making and re-making history. Can we extend this from the classroom and into our core work, and identity, as historians – without that implying a compromise in intellectual rigour?
Public history talks the language of co-production of knowledge (and co-curation in museums is an emerging concept) and, in certain forms, the involvement of people as the subjects and audiences of historican enquiry is taken seriously. I think we can be more ambitious, however. There are some excellent public history platforms out there; the Old Bailey Online is a pioneering example, and even relatively simple platforms such as WordPress and HistoryPin are allowing students, community groups, heritage organisations and many others to contribute to historical knowledge. But what is the next stage? How can the scholarly conversation be opened up – as opposed to just scholarly knowledge? How can both ‘new’ and ‘old’ media, and the blurring of the boundaries between them, help create a much broader community of enquiry, not just a wider audience?
But we also need to think about how this might happen. ‘Follow the money’ is one of the tips we give to our public history students. The trend in recent UK funding policy is to restrict access to research money to fewer and fewer universities – the principle of ‘excellence wherever it’s found’ doesn’t always translate into practice – and those universities are often the least attuned to external engagement, at least outside the big corporates (let alone small community groups). Some funding is now flowing for forms of public engagement in the humanities, but could that end up creating a divide between ‘real research’ and the ‘soft stuff’ of collaboration with community groups and other users and audiences? Any such divide would allow for a ready ‘reprioritisation’ of funding in the event of further reductions in the overall research budget.
So while there might be as yet unrealised potential for using social media to break down some of the divides in terms of ‘making’ knowledge, whether that happens depends in part on whether we value – and fund – the academic work that takes collaboration seriously.
The university policy adviser is now a fixture in higher education. At least, there are enough of us that we’re now getting organised. There’s a large Political Affairs Network under the auspices of UUK that brings together policy, comms, strategy and related staff as well as a smaller, more informal collective of VCs’ policy advisers and exec officers, now named the Lighthouse Group (after Plymouth’s Caroline Chipperfield handed the attendees of the first get-together snazzy lighthouse phone charms).
We work to very different VCs with very different institutional aims, but in practice the similarities are surprisingly many. One of the main similarities is also the source of one of the main challenges: we work in VCs’ offices. Maybe not in physical terms that far from where the core business of the university happens, but sometimes it may as well be. It would be relatively easy to stay in the bubble of the ‘top corridor’ and only interact with other parts of the university when we need a ‘crunchy’ case study for an MP’s briefing note, some figures for a speech or an amenable group of students for a ministerial visit. That is of course a crude characterisation (all the HE policy advisers I’ve met have genuine dedication to their institutions). And we do need access to – and the trust of – the executive team to be effective. But I wonder if that’s only half the argument.
Would we be better policy advisers if we were also part of ‘core business’? More aware of operational realities, more part of the fabric of the place and more able to bridge the corporate and academic ‘levels’, both as advisers and advocates?
Some could get involved in teaching and supervision, building on (or developing) their academic credentials or team teaching to integrate their professional expertise on politics, government, journalism or management. Others have come by different routes and could contribute to student administration, marketing or recruitment. Of course, some of these roles would need significant commitment – a genuinely dual or hybrid role – whereas others could be fulfilled on a less formal basis. And there would need to be mutual benefit and a collaborative approach – no-one would want a tokenistic effort that involved more trouble to accommodate than it was worth.
Personally, the best and most fulfilling thing I have done has been taking on an academic role. It has clarified my sense of self and opened up a whole new future. But even if you’re a dedicated follower of policy, getting some experience of ‘core business’ has got to be worth considering. From the university’s perspective, why shouldn’t policy advisers be expected to ‘practise what they brief’, if only to make them better advisers and advocates? From the adviser’s perspective, we can develop that rare combination of profile and substance that is often lacking in politics (with the well-established special adviser route to ministerial status).
As I’ve argued before, it’s a shame that university systems and structures create parallel tracks for staff that make any such innovation difficult. Making it happen relies on the entrepreneurship and enthusiasm of those involved (on both sides). But maybe working on the ‘top corridor’ is only worth it if you also know how to work outside it.
The next IHR Public History seminar brings Glen O’Hara, former journalist now Reader in the History of Public Policy at Oxford Brookes (whose many blogging activities include his own Public Policy and the Past) together with Ben Chu, Economics Editor of the Independent.
The format and approach of this session will be a bit different – more of a workshop than a seminar. It’s about giving historians some advice on how to use new technologies – such as social media or ‘blogging’ – to embed and deepen their presentational skills for the purposes of media engagement, and to attract attention to their work from the world outside academe.
Glen and Ben will each talk briefly about what is and what is not useful for journalists (and the private sector more broadly) in historial work – and what will not work so well. There will then be an open discussion to explore what does and does not constitute ‘popular’ or ‘accessible’ writing.
This discussion responds to a context in which historians are under immense pressure to make their work ‘relevant’. Some Ministers are under the impression that humanities subjects are ‘ivory towers’ indulgences; undergradatute recruitment is set to become ever more competitive, forcing academics to reach out to wider audiences; and of course there is the pressure of the Research Excellence Framework ‘impact’ agenda, which asks all Higher Education Professionals to consider the societal relevance of their work.
The seminar will be held in room S264, 2nd floor Senate House. Drinks will be served. All are, as ever, very welcome! Seminar will be live tweeted and a podcast will follow.
A colleague just forwarded to me an invitation to an event run by the Alliance for Useful Evidence on the topic of ‘Broadening the evidence base: science and social science in social policy’. ‘Broadening’ by this account means drawing on ‘the distinctive contributions can the natural sciences, engineering and social sciences’ – presumably the disciplines that can offer ‘useful evidence’ (I can’t quite get Thomas the ‘really useful engine’ out of my mind here). The idea of ‘useful evidence’ seems to me to collude with the highly problematic proposition of ‘evidence-based policymaking’, with all its misunderstandings, elisions and conflations. Rather than challenge the proposition itself, ‘useful evidence’ here merely stretches the definition (a bit like adding letters to the acronym STEM to stake a claim for disciplinary significance).
The January session on ‘Experts, publics and open policy’ offers at first glance greater potential for a genuinely broader discussion. The agenda describes (in rather predictable terms) the divide between ‘hard evidence’ (from economics or science) and ‘public opinion and attitude’. So this should be one to which historians can ‘usefully’ contribute, particularly those who have been pioneers for various forms of history in public. But will they even be there to do so? The message seems to be that the debate about ‘useful evidence’ is not for us.
Alice Bell is spot on when she says philosopher Nina Power’s questions for her field are relevant to all disciplines. Particularly at a time when the sector seems to be willingly carving itself up by presumed institutional brand, it is probably only the disciplines that can mount a serious challenge. Funding policy seems formulated to reinforce those lines of division, even while claiming to be championing collaboration.
The issue about linking people’s critical questions with the questions that have preoccupied philosophers for generations gets to the heart of disciplinary purpose. All enquiry is purposeful but how far do we inspect those purposes? Do we assume any form of public purpose means public engagement, a bolt-on at the end – or can we reimagine it as integral to the enquiry itself?
Originally posted on through the looking glass:
A table at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre coffee shop. No, I don’t know what it means either.
The latest episode of Brain Train is up – the podcast I work on where we get academics to quiz other academics – this time with autism researcher Johanna Finneman interviewing philosopher Nina Power. I think my favourite bit is where Power stands up for the right of philosophers to be “a little bit annoying”. As much as I am a philosopher (and I’d say I’m roughly 15% philosopher, albeit a self-hating one most of the time) I very much ascribe to that.
The format’s designed so each episode an academic interviews another about their work, then in the next episode the interviewee becomes the interviewer (and the expert becomes the novice) and so on. At the end of each episode we also ask the interviewee (the expert) what questions they have for their own field. These are Power’s, for…
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Rohan Butler served as the Foreign Secretary’s historical adviser from 1963-82 and was one of the leading figures in the civil service’s post-war experiment in incorporating historical perspective into the business of policymaking. His neat and evocative phrase ‘the endless rustle of the in-tray’ (cited by Peter Beck in his illuminating study of these experiments, in the the Treasury and Foreign Office, 1950-76) points to the difficulty of finding time for long view, big issue thinking when operational demands always seem to take precedence. This means that in times of crisis (Butler was writing about Abadan), the need for ‘action under pressure’ cannot accommodate the considered thinking necessary for good decision-making.
The institutional culture of the government department – and the broader civil service – seems from Beck’s description (based on extensive archival research) to account in large measure for this operational mind-set. But are we any better at “resisting the rustle” now, in universities, in businesses and other organisations?
Doing this blog is one way I try to step back and look for perspectives and connections that I’d otherwise miss. And I struggle to find the time to do so, even though my express purpose is linking history with political and public life! So sitting down and writing this now means consciously blocking my ears, knowing that the to-do list is growing as I type.
Self-help books often recommend setting aside some time on a regular basis for doing more strategic thinking (don’t turn the email on, ignore the phone etc.) But such good intentions are unlikely to last. And my sense is that keeping historical thinking going means making it part of “business”. We often think that “diarising” something is a way of signalling its importance and securing its status in our lives. But I think that tends instead to compartmentalise it, making it separate from our lives: moveable, interchangeable, containable. In policy, this would entail integrating historical forms of enquiry into the broader process by which policy is developed, rather than seeking historical “evidence” as a bolt-on (if at all). I think this approach has wider relevance too. At its simplest, it could just be asking historical questions about how an issue’s emerged or the context for a decision.
But for now, the ear-muffs must come off…