‘It’s the mix that matters’: new journal article on history and expertise for policymaking

Contemporary British History

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

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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)

The ‘endless rustle of the in-tray’: finding time for historical thinking

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…

Parallel tracks 2: Academic/professional divides in universities

I blogged back in March about how the development of intellectual capacity and that of employability skills are too often regarded as parallel tracks in higher education.  Such false dichotomies often create impasses, and impasses inhibit the ability to adapt, respond and innovate.

Another such divide is that between academic and other staff in universities.  In newer institutions, such staff may be called ‘professional’ rather than ‘support’ staff as a way of capturing their ‘different but equal’ status in the running of the organisation.  Many other companies and organisations have taken similar measures.  As a symbol of corporate-level recognition of the contributions different roles make to the whole, this is to be welcomed.  Moves towards equalisation of pay and conditions often follow (such as the single pay spine in HE).

There is certainly more to be done to realise a university culture in which the different roles are truly valued and respected, but to see this just as an HR issue is to miss an important dimension.

As Paul Marshall, ABS Chief Executive, reminded the assembled Hertfordshire Business School in a keynote last week, we live in a VUCA world: Volatile; Uncertain; Complex and Ambiguous (and Higher Education feels to many particularly VUCA).  It wouldn’t be saying anything new to suggest that such an environment calls on a wider range of skills, experience and capacities in leaders than were needed in more stable times.

‘It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader,’ Ancona et al argued in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007, a call that resonates to an even greater extent now.  The modern executive’s role is ‘to cultivate and coordinate’ – not ‘command and control’ the actions of others.  By seeing themselves as incomplete, they can then start to rely on others to ‘make up for their missing skills.’

So we’re back to complementarity.  In an HE setting, this means building management teams with expertise in different aspects of university activity.  Many universities, particularly the newer ones, do indeed have directors of key services at the top table.  Such arrangements imply recognition of the complementarity of academic and professional roles.  But recognition solidifies those categories – and the lines of demarcation between them.  ‘Different but equal’ makes sense in theory, but in practice it makes rigid and definite what could productively be flexible and fuzzy, particularly in the VUCA world of HE.

An alternative (and complementary) way of looking at complementarity in terms of skills for HE management is to think about the individual.  An individual with an ‘academic’ role could develop complementary skills, knowledge and insights through a secondment internally, or into a company, government department or local council; one with a ‘professional’ role could do so through undertaking doctoral study, teaching or contributing to a collaborative research project.  One route that has worked is from professional practice (such as nursing, law or business) into academe.  But those transitions tend to be one-time (and therefore one-direction) movements.  They also seem to be coming under pressure from demands for academic accreditation and research activity in many universities.

Assembling such a portfolio of experience may not be for everyone.  But why would we not want our leaders to be so equipped given the uncertainties and volatilities of the future?  It wouldn’t make them ‘complete’ of course, but it might make the incompleteness more conscious and therefore productive.  Building a team, developing strategy, making decisions – these processes could all draw not just on an intellectual awareness of the need for complementary skills but a real ability to identify with the questions, concerns and priorities of the functional areas that hold those skills.

The transformation of the ‘support staff’ to the ‘professional’, even though nominally based on parity of esteem, addressed the symptoms not the problem.  Those symptoms badly needed treating, and we must finish the course.  But we shouldn’t forget the underlying problem: parallel tracks.  Maybe it’s up to each of us to be an entrepreneur in our own careers – just like Darlene Roth’s public historian – but then at least the environment needs to be conducive to innovation.  Why shouldn’t university policies support ‘academics’ to bring discipline-level nuance to website development and marketing, or ‘professionals’ to undertake the advanced studies that allow them to bring their specialist knowledge to students’ learning?  Why shouldn’t hybrid or dual roles be more common, even encouraged?  We need a new kind of blended learning and a new, more open and flexible approach to progression and recognition to help develop the incomplete leaders of tomorrow’s universities.

Complementarity in Higher Education: what does it mean for disciplines?

One of the most important concepts in the Wilson Review of University-Business Collaboration is complementarity – the idea that different institutions with different histories, different cultures, missions and identities, can play roles that support, reinforce and enhance each other in the pursuit of economic as well as social and cultural benefit.

A sector shaped by a sense of collaborative – rather than competitive – advantage would emphasise complementarity, leading universities to recognise and celebrate the strengths of others, and cross-refer businesses to the most appropriate HE partner. The potential prize is a bigger ‘pie’ to share, rather than an increasingly vicious scrap to divide up the existing pastry-encased dish.

This will be the theme for my talk tomorrow at the HE Beyond 2015 conference. In my 20 minutes I will be sticking to the corporate level, but with my new academic role I’m becoming more interested in the disciplinary dimension of policy debates. So when I spoke to the Association of Business Schools policy roundtable last month I suggested there was potential in thinking about issues such as local economic development through the lens of academic subjects. How can disciplines as distinctive forms of knowledge work together in tackling important problems, such as building (economically, socially) sustainable communities, or supporting enterprise and business growth?

Jon Wilson highlighted today at the first of the ippr/King’s Policy Unit seminars on the Future of HE that there’s often a disconnect between how management conceive of and express the purpose of higher education and how academics do so. In theory at least, there is real potential for complementarity between the ‘corporate’ and the ‘academic’ (as a disciplinary practitioner) in areas such as local economic development.

University leaders can set strategy, defining a framework that values engagement with and commitment to local impact in whatever forms fit the institution’s mission and the community’s needs. Subject area leaders such as Heads of School can then use that framework to help structure their thinking in terms of disciplinary activity – not as a constraint on creativity but the opposite, as a license for imagining and reconceiving what forms that academic endeavour could take if inspired by the idea of local impact.

I wonder how often those ‘conversations’ between the corporate and the academic dimensions of university life take place? Or do we instinctively resort to models of irreconcilability between the two? The Wilson Review highlighted the need to challenge outmoded ideas of the unbridgeable cultural divide between universities and business and debunk the myths of the ‘unresponsive university’ and the ‘unreasonable business’. Do we also need to turn our attention inwards and look for greater complementarity between corporate and academic aspirations and endeavours? This is challenging for both parties, but the potential rewards are great.

Most universities seek national and international profile and standing, at least in select areas. These goals can be compatible – not in tension – with significant and multi-faceted engagement at local level; we can be world-class at local impact, and that mission can bring global connections, for example with collaborations in teaching and research.  What is needed is commitment and imagination, both at corporate and at discipline level, to find the points of integration between local and national agendas.

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Afterthought: Does it make those ‘conversations’ easier if the corporate leaders share a disciplinary background with a group of academics?

Part 2: Negotiation and the uses of history in business

In Part 1 I talked about the importance of ‘placement’ for negotiation, of locating the other party within national and organisational cultural contexts as a way of understanding the likely approach to decision-making.  This involves asking historical questions that allow us to assemble synchronic and diachronic narratives to help develop that understanding.

This task is, or should be, complemented by an investment in understanding our own interests and positions.  It is easy in a negotiation to become preoccupied with the other party, to focus our attention on their background, motivations, tactics and goals, and thereby to neglect the task of reflecting on our own.

Again, I think there is an alignment with history.  As old disciplinary certainties have broken down over the last 40 years or so, a new plurality of perspectives and self-consciousness in practice have emerged.  It is now expected that historians are clear about their claims, methods and commitments and such a task involves a level of engagement with the implications of these for the analyses and accounts that result.  In a sense, historians go through a process of negotiation between self and sources – rather than a uni-directional interrogation.  We no longer ‘hard-bargain’ with our (remote) subjects to extract maximum value, rather recognise that we are ourselves also involved and hence the relationship matters.

For me, there are some potential problems.  Pluralisation is often connected to specialisation and fragmentation, a trend that has perhaps made history turn inwards, less engaged with or concerned about how it relates to, informs or participates in broader public debates and democratic processes.  A greater self-consciousness is surely an asset, but not if it drives us to a level of introspection that shuts down rather than opens up opportunities for reinvigorating and reconceptualising what history is and what historians can do.

Maybe that’s as far as the analogy between negotiation and history can go.  But analogising is probably a good habit to get into.  When reading and thinking about a topic/theme/argument, should we routinely ask: what does this mean for history?  What could history mean for this?  And how can we creatively negotiate between the two?

Negotiation and the uses of history in business

Doing the pre-reading for a course in negotiation for university staff at UCLA while sitting in the Profeta coffee house on Glendon Avenue (much recommended), I came across another intersection between ‘history’ and ‘policy’: negotiation.

In Thinking in time: the uses of history for decision-makers, Neustadt and May offer a set of ‘mini-methods’ for thinking with history when faced with a ‘decision situation’.  By looking for the story behind an issue (rather than just focusing on the ‘problem’), revisiting key presumptions and carefully inspecting analogies, the historian offer the decision-maker important insights.  At the heart of their thinking lies the idea of placement: that by locating and understanding the other party, both diachronically and synchronically, you can start to anticipate likely attitudes and hence likely actions and reactions.  The other party may be an individual, such as the leader of another country, or an organisation or group; either way, you need some knowledge of the history, the culture and the practices to make any kind of informed judgement about a course of action involving it.

In discussing Intercultural negotiations in International Business, Salacuse makes very a very similar case.  In any such situation, “it is important to know how the other side is organized, who has the authority to make commitments, and how decisions are made,” with (national) culture a key factor.  Though not a concern of the author, he does imply that history shapes the cultural values which themselves shape approaches and attitudes to negotiation in business.  Hence, for Salacuse, the political traditions in Brazil, China and Mexico may be reflected in a preference for ‘one-person leadership’ over ‘group consensus’, and a knowledge of Thai histories should prove valuable to an American tasked with forming a strategic alliance with a company in Bangkok.

Neustadt and May’s case studies involve national and international policy.  Armed conflict is a potential outcome of many of the decision situations and the parties involved come into only infrequent, high-stakes contact.  Salacuse’s parties, by contrast, face only failure to secure business deals and are by mutual consent involved in a dialogue.  Though the contexts in which authors’ methods might be put to use are very different (as are the risks and outcomes) an interesting affinity in terms of the importance of placement can be brought to the surface.

It’s difficult to gain the understanding of a national culture, or indeed an organisational culture – without asking historical questions about the underlying stories.   Understanding the individuals involved, their location within the organisation and the context for the specific negotiation likewise call for historical perspective.  Salacuse discusses the need to develop knowledge of culture and knowledge of the individual under two separate rules.  Perhaps a more explicitly historical approach would allow these to be integrated into a single rule for successful business negotiation: always invest time up front in ‘placing’ the other party, that is, in understanding its contexts.  One of the strengths of history as a discipline is that it can work with multiple levels of human identity, action and meaning.  It can locate the individual within different groupings, and those groupings within larger collectivities.

There have been some attempts, particularly in the US, to make the case for the importance of history to and in business (for example Jones and Khanna, 2006), but the potential seems to be largely unrealised in the UK.  A historical approach to business negotiation is just one option.  There’s also scope for historians to be active in their local business communities, and for businesses to be demanding their services.  For example, how about working alongside Business School colleagues to advise companies on making effective use of records in strategy and planning, or to conduct and analyse oral history programmes to preserve institutional memory and put it to work for the future?

For me, this is an important other dimension to the role of universities in local economic development, a view I shared at a recent Association of Business Schools policy forum on the challenge of economic regeneration.  In the sector, we often talk about the ‘corporate’ dimension – the contribution universities make as large employers, with their procurement budgets and through staff and student spending.  Higher education is a major export market, worth £7.9bn 2009, and a draw for inward investment.  But in doing so, do we miss or underplay the academic dimension?  Can the disciplines, with their distinct yet often complementary forms of knowledge and methods, have real social and economic impact at local level?

History ventures: skills vs knowledge in the public history marketplace

“The skills of doing history are more frequently used, needed, and recompensed than the expertise of knowing history”

This is Darlene Roth, writing in the NCPH’s Public History News.  Roth goes on to talk about the successful model of ‘developmental history’ work her consultancy The History Group undertook for planners, developers and government agencies.  She also refers to corporate histories and museum curation.  These examples open our eyes to the range of tasks and projects that can done well – or best – by historians, whether academics working ‘across borders’ or the historically-trained working in professional contexts.

But for me it also suggests the need to open our minds.  Can we articulate clearly what ‘the skills of doing history’ are and be creative in identifying tasks that are not necessarily explicitly historical in character but would be done well – or best – by historians?  There are fields where there is often a ‘history gap’, such as in policy development, marketing or organisational strategy, but these should not constitute the limits of our imagination.

Working this out is not just a self-serving exercise.  Humanities applications for the first year of the new funding system are down in many institutions.  It’s too early to say whether concerns about employability in the context of higher debt are a major factor, but it’s a strong possibility – particularly for certain student groups – that we need to consider (league tables of salaries are rather unhelpful here).  More needs to be done to ensure prospective students and their parents understand the student finance system, but  universities have a role too, and not just their recruitment and marketing departments.  Open days and school visits are important opportunities for university staff to meet students and parents and discuss what studying a particular subject at a particular institution is like.  If, as historians, we can share with them the many ways in which the skills of doing history can be meaningfully and usefully applied in the world of work, and our commitment to helping students develop those skills, we can start to counteract the belief that a humanities degree ‘just equips them for standing in the dole queue’ (as one Tweeter said to me recently).

Students come to university for many reasons.  To further their job prospects may only be one reason, but it’s a legitimate one, and one with which we need to engage.  We shouldn’t give in to the cynicism that divides knowledge and skills and denigrates the latter as empty, instrumental or devalued.  Nor should we section off ’employability skills’ in the curriculum; by teaching students to be historians, we are developing skills needed for work – we just need to bring awareness of that connection to the surface (see my earlier Parallel Tracks blog post).  I hope the emerging field of public history can provide a context to help us frame the terms of the debate rather differently.

Roth goes on:

I am saying that it pays to look at how you do what you do as a historian, and how you think as a historian, and follow those routes to marketability, not just the standard one of equating historical knowledge as the thing being sold.  Ergo: “I am an entrepreneur, and history is my product” becomes “I am an entrepreneur and history is the source of my products”… If history is the answer, what is the question?  Who needs it and why?

We may prefer a somewhat different language in this country, but I think we can take on the idea of entrepreneurship and interpret it for our own context.  Can we be entrepreneurs for the discipline, for the practice of history, but also for our students so that they can see history as their future?

What are the success factors for public historians?

On the NCPH’s new public history commons, History@Work, Darlene Roth posted a blog about identifying what success looks like for public history, a debate as interesting in a US context, where educational and career pathways are well-established, as it is for a UK field still seeking to define its parameters and priorities.  In a thought-provoking two-part post*, Dr Roth goes on to lay out 7 areas, or scenarios, where public history is distinctive from its academic counterpart.  I’d be interested to hear from public historians in the UK (and indeed in other countries) whether they recognise descriptions or whether the points of departure are to be found elsewhere.

Reading the post, the introductory comments seemed to me as illuminating as the scenarios themselves.  She starts:

Each paragraph below presents a common public history work scenario that differs – a little or a lot – from traditional academy-based work.  I am looking for comments, suggestions, alternative ideas, and specific examples of what is described.   This was written as a centerpiece for a work session planned for the 2012 annual meeting, but is a topic that deserves widest possible exposure.  It is being cross-posted on the H-Public listserv and I invite comments either here on the blog or on the list.

These remarks serve not only as a preamble.  For me, they also encapsulate the character and spirit of public history, which is (as she goes on to point out) often a group effort, with historians working alongside, for and in close collaboration with many others.  As a result, maybe discussions such as this happen more frequently among public historians than within the ‘mainstream’ academy?  When they do, do they draw in more participants in more animated exchanges?  Can this same vibrancy of debate be created in the UK, where public history is still (mostly) approached tentatively and seems to preoccupy itself with heritage rather than testing its own boundaries (for example, into what Dr Roth refers to as ‘public service’)?

Of the seven areas she describes, perhaps the most intellectually interesting from my perspective was concerned with process:

Process is as important to public history as findings are. Usually public historians are working in areas that are in some way unprecedented.  Often enough, public historians are tracking historical records and creating new chronicles of activity for purposes of documentation or correcting the existing record.  More often, though, they are looking at things that have not yet been “storied;” they are dealing with objects, events, places, and persons, that are only now being considered “historic,” or they are being asked to evaluate the historicity of something that might seem anomalous (to others).  What the historian does in these instances, as well as how they do their work, and how the historian conceives the thing to be, are every bit as important as what they find.  In fact, these are instrumental to the findings.  It is therefore essential in public history to share procedural matters as much as it is to share findings.  Yet these are often classified as secondary tools of the practice and therefore do not feed into the traditional success model as much as they almost have to in public history formats.  Articles in The Public Historian, for example, have made it clear over the years, that HOW work is done in public history is as important to know as WHAT work is done…

In this respect, public historians have an obligation to their field, to their peers (both in public and in ‘academic’ history) and to their collaborators and audiences, to be transparent about the processes of their work.  Such clarity helps to define and advance practice and method.  My research is looking at another dimension to the importance of process, so I’ll be interested to see responses to Dr Roth’s comments.  Would a shift in focus from the provision of historical ‘content’ or insight to the inclusion of the process of historical thinking be a more effective way of bringing historical perspective to activities such as policy development and strategy-making?

*At the time of writing, the second part had not been published on the blog, but only sent by email.