History, Policy and Public Purpose Historians and Historical Thinking in Government | History and Policy

JacketReblogging here my post from History and Policy #HistoriansBooks section – and please see details of a mini symposium and book launch on 24th June below…

The use, mis-use and neglect of the past by policymakers is an irresistible target.  Whether it’s Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on the dangers of German reunification, Tony Blair’s disregard for the complexities of Iraqi history or Boris Johnson’s comparison of the EU’s aims with Hitler’s, political leaders have drawn historians’ ire.  The privileging of quantitative evidence, with its illusory assurance of ‘what works’, and the dominance of the short-term over the long view have further widened the perceived ‘history gap’ in politics.  At least, so the caricature goes. But what happens if we pause to check our assumptions?

Most historians would now hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ to describe what emerges from our work, at least to academic audiences.  Even those determined to present a particular account as definitive must acknowledge the provisional nature of any historical interpretation and the existence of multiple perspectives and approaches.  And yet we seem comfortable with the notion of ‘speaking truth to power’, and the implied entitlement to inform, correct and admonish those charged with political decision-making.  The emerging field of public history has been championing co-production and shared authority with museums, heritage organisations and community groups, and yet collaboration with policymakers remains beyond the pale.

It’s no great insight to observe that how we define a problem is important – it influences our approach and what options we consider.  If we think, for example, that the problem of the ‘history gap’ in government is one of cultural difference from academe – exacerbated by tight timescales, electoral pressures and a preference for the apparent certainty of numbers – then a certain range of solutions present themselves.  We would need to package the ‘truth’ in accessible language and succinct formats – policy papers and consultation responses rather than journal articles and books.  We would seek to build bridges with policy communities, holding workshops and expert seminars to connect the two tribes and territories.

But can we define the history gap as just an issue of communication and translation?  Historians are master debunkers when it comes to myths and assumptions, or so we like to tell ourselves.  So it should perhaps give us pause for thought that ‘speaking truth to power’ (even in policy-friendly briefing notes) is a rather neat and convenient notion – at least for us.  It’s only used, of course, by those who believe themselves to be in possession of the truth and under a moral obligation to share it.  But can we content ourselves with a sermonising model – instructing policymakers, otherwise liable to neglect or distort the past – without at least some critical reflection on our own scholarly attitudes, values and practices?

History, Policy and Public Purpose emerged from a recognition that connecting history and policy was as much about ‘historianship’ – why, how, where and for whom we ‘do’ history – as about policymaking.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, I had become much more conscious of my historical habits of mind while working in policy roles in government and higher education.  At the same time, I developed an appreciation of the constraints and pressures with which civil servants, advisers, MPs, committees and ministers have to operate.  The book engages with the intellectual and methodological issues related to historical thinking and practice, while taking the contextual realities of policymaking seriously.  Critiques from the ‘outside’, however well-founded, timely and judicious, are unlikely on their own to exert an on-going influence on political decision-making.

The book revolves around the second chapter, in which I explore how history could work effectively within those cultural and structural realities, and contribute to the processes of policy formulation.  The key manoeuvre I propose is a shift in emphasis from historical ‘content’ (what we produce) to ‘process’ (how we work).  Historians certainly have much to offer as expert mediators with the past, seen as a repository of potentially illuminating perspectives or an archive of analogies and long views.  The ‘pitch’ for history’s relevance to policy usually rests on such claims, and the History and Policy archive of over a decade’s worth of policy papers is a unique collection that shows how pertinent and powerful such insights can be.

Without undermining the value of these interventions, we can recognise that they form only part of the solution.  A focus on ‘content’ requires historians to establish policy relevance on a case-by-case basis. The process by which historians think and work, the conceptual tools and what educational psychologists have called ‘cognitive moves’ of disciplinary-history, are not so constrained.  I suggest that historians have something important to offer as part of the ‘collective puzzling’ at the heart of policymaking.  We may be ‘content’ experts – in foreign relations, health or welfare policy, for example – but we also bring distinctive habits of mind as historians, ways of questioning, seeking and reading evidence, checking assumptions and building arguments.  So my sense is that we need to move to a model of thinking with history in policy, rather than one focused only on bringing historical perspectives to the notice of policymakers.

That’s not to say that historical thinking is somehow the key to ‘better’ policymaking (tempting as that claim may be).  History is no more the master discipline than economics.  In the context of highly complex policy problems, I emphasise the centrality of collaboration – rather than competition – between different specialisms. If we want scholarship and informed debate to exert a greater influence on policy, we will all surely need to be advocates not just for the merits of our own disciplines, but for a genuinely rich ecosystem of expert advice.

An obvious line of criticism of the proposals in the book is that they’re idealistic.  So, it’s all very well to place historians as ‘insiders’ in government, but ministers would never listen.  Or, mixed policy teams that bring together economists and historians or philosophers make sense in theory, but in practice they would never exert the same level of influence.  Such criticisms are valid, but my response would be ‘yes, and?’.  If we want to be heard, to be part of the most important conversations about policy, critique is not enough.  We can recognise the scale of the challenge, while pursuing a policy of pragmatic persistence – policy is surely too important for historians to take any other course.  Indeed, the injunction made in 1984 by Oxford historian, Avner Offer, is perhaps even more pressing today: ‘neither detachment nor defiance will do.’


On 24th June 2016, there will be a symposium on ‘Connecting History, Policy and the Public’ and book launch, 2-8pm. All welcome but please register your interest!

It’s in room 349, Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.

Confirmed contributors: Andrew Blick (King’s College London), Justin Champion (Royal Holloway), Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire) Alix Green (University of Central Lancashire), Paul Lay (History Today), Edward Madigan (Royal Holloway), Steve Poole (University of the West of England), Graham Smith (Royal Holloway), John Tosh (Roehampton), Anna Whitelock (Royal Holloway)

IHR Public History Seminar: Business archives, 19th December

This week we’re talking business under the title ‘Selective History – The absence of business archives in the retelling of the past’.  Seminar convenor Judy Faraday, Partnership Archivist for the John Lewis Partnership will be in conversation with Professor Peter Scott, Director of the Centre for International Business History at Henley Business School, University of Reading, will be the main speaker.

The seminar will be held on Wednesday 19th December in the Montague Room (G26) of the Senate House, University of London, at 17:30 and followed by seasonal drinks and nibbles.  All are warmly welcome.

Thousands of dissertations, journal articles and research papers are created each year.  Some of these become seminal works used by future generations of researchers to continue their quest for the truth.  But how much truth is there if certain groups of relevant sources are not fully utilised?

This seminar will question the way business archive sources are viewed by academics and how researchers can skew the balance of research by avoiding the use of records which may be less obvious, more difficult to view or which are not located in a digital or easy to access location.

Given the perceived limitations on the use of business archives, have the academic world chosen the easy option avoiding the need to address issues around access or responsibility to the creating body, preferring the warmth of their office desks to the chilly strongrooms which may contain those nuggets of information which could add another dimension to their research?

The view from both sides of the searchroom will be discussed by Professor Peter Scott of the Henley Business School and Judy Faraday, Archivist for the John Lewis Partnership with comment designed to stimulate debate and encourage the development of a greater rapport between the academic researcher and the gatekeepers of the historical record.

IHR Public History Seminar: cultural heritage research, 7th November

Following a very positive and promising start to the new Public History Seminar with Rebecca Conard’s talk on civic engagement last month, we’re delighted to have Professor Alison Wylie of the Departments of Philosophy and Anthropology, University of Washington and Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Durham, speaking on the topic ‘Negotiating the past: Collaborative practice in cultural heritage research’.  Responding will be Dr Laura Peers of the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Anthropology, University of Oxford.

The seminar will be held on Wednesday 7th November in the Athlone Room (102) of the Senate House, University of London, at 17:30 and followed by a drinks reception. All are warmly welcome.

Archaeology has seen a major sea change in the last few decades as any number of stakeholders, especially Indigenous, Aboriginal, and First Nations descendant communities, demand accountability to their interests, their conventions of practice and conceptions of cultural heritage. What are the implications of this for archaeological practice? Internal debate in North America has been dominated by anxieties about the costs of response to these demands: the focus is on high profile examples of research opportunities lost and professional autonomy compromised by legal constraints and by intractable conflict. All too often this obscures local initiatives that illustrate what becomes possible when practice is reframed as a form of intellectual and cultural collaboration. In the case of collaborations with Native American communities, the archaeologists involved describe innumerable ways in which their research programs have been enriched, empirically and conceptually. I explore the legacies of community-based collaborative practice in archaeology, focusing on their implications for procedural norms that govern the adjudication of empirical robustness and credibility. I argue that conditions for effective critical engagement must include a requirement to take seriously forms of expertise that lie outside the research community.


New IHR Public History Seminar: opening lecture 13th September 2012

Along with Anna Maerker (King’s College London), John Tosh (Roehampton University), Judy Faraday (John Lewis Partnership) and Tim Boon (Science Museum), I’m convening a new seminar series on Public History at the Institute for Historical Research.

It’s conceived as a forum for an on-going dialogue on pressing issues in public history between academic historians and students, practitioners of public history and others interested in the roles, purposes and challenges of ‘history in public’.

The seminar will provide a platform to discuss the relationship between practical, political and methodological issues of public history, to develop innovative new approaches to historiography and public engagement, and to respond flexibly to the challenges of research policy.

Given my interests in history and public policy, I’m really pleased that Professor Rebecca Conard (Middle Tennessee University), past president of the U.S. National Council on Public History and author of Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History, has agreed to to launch the new seminar series with a lecture on ‘Civic Engagement Then and Now: A View from the US’.  The lecture will be held on Thursday 13th September at 6.00pm in the Court Room at Senate House.  All are welcome.

The issue of relevancy is a long-standing concern among historians, often summoned when current events or trends threaten to destabilize civic order in some way.  Rebecca Conard will offer a historical perspective on history-based civic engagement in the U.S.—the use of history and historic places to frame public discussion about current issues.  Her remarks will span the Commonwealth Conferences organized by the State Historical Society of Iowa in the 1920s to encourage greater citizen involvement in policymaking, to the 2003 National Park Service Director’s Order No. 75A on Civic Engagement and Public Involvement, triggered in part by the air attacks of September 11, 2001, but also responding to a advisory board report urging the National Park Service to think of America’s national parks as places to tell “the American story . . . faithfully, completely, accurately” because “our nation’s history is our civic glue.”