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.’

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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)

A Skeptical Note on Policy-Prescriptive Political Science

work shedJay Ulfelder’s recent ‘skeptical note’ on the ‘actionability’ of political science research makes some essential points about the problematic assumptions underpinning policy recommendations. In Britain, the Blairite manifesto pitch ‘what counts is what works’ subdues the complexities of research method that might, at best, conclude ‘what works here’ (with further caveats about target population and other central aspects of the design).
I’m not sure, however, that scholars of any discipline should therefore refrain from proposing recommendations or, even more cautiously, withdraw from offering expert advice.

One of the important problems Ulfelder identifies is the uncertainties that are involved in the space between research and policy. How can a scholar answer the ‘so what?’ question that follows from any finding?  There are two issues that we can unpack here.

The first is the inevitability, indeed, the necessity, of uncertainty. Policy is messy, unstable and contested because it involves human beings and their beliefs, habits, commitments, decisions and relationships – in the exercise of power, the exertion of influence, in policy implementation and debate. Instead of searching for the definitive research design to address all the assumptions about the transferability of findings – or indeed, just leaving it to ‘elected officials and bureaucrats’ to do the interpretation – we should be bringing together different disciplines with complementary insights. Given the uncertainties of anything involving human beings, the humanities need to be in there too, rather than ignored as irrelevant, if not ornamental.

The other issue is the ‘so what?’ question. I agree it’s hard for scholars to come up with policy recommendations, but that’s at least in part due to their lack of experience of policymaking in practice. In the UK, there is far less interchange between higher education and government than in the USA and the academic career is still pretty intolerant of periods spent in other settings, something that needs to change. Taking a look over the fence and trying to prescribe policy interventions based on research designed for academic purposes seems foolish at best, if not rather arrogant as well as misguided. Humanities scholars may be largely ignored, but we can often be too concerned to preserve our integrity by not allowing policy concerns to ‘sully’ our work.

This seems a rather self-defeating formula. Policymakers don’t get access to an ecosystem of expertise. Scholars remain on the far side of the fence lamenting the intellectual illiteracy of political rhetoric and decision-making.

But does it need to be this way? I don’t think so. But there’s no easy policy prescription for fixing it, as it involves major shifts in perspective among scholars – towards actively looking for cross-disciplinary approaches – and in policy communities that often have limited conceptions of ‘relevant’ evidence.

Being honest in response to a request for expert advice is not just about admitting the limits of one’s own expertise but also the limits of one’s own discipline. It’s the mix that matters, but it’s not easy for the expert to admit it.

Dart-Throwing Chimp

My sometimes-colleague Michael Horowitz wrote a great piece for War on the Rocks last week on what “policy relevance” means for political scientists who study international affairs, and the different forms that relevance can take. Among the dimensions of policy relevance he calls out is the idea of “policy actionability”:

Policy actionability refers to a recommendation that is possible to implement for the target of the recommendation. Most academic work is not policy actionable, fundamentally. For example, implications from international relations research are things such as whether countries with high male-to-female ratios are more likely to start military conflicts or that countries that acquire nuclear weapons become harder to coerce.

As Michael notes, most scholarship isn’t “actionable” in this way, and isn’t meant to be. In my experience, though, there is plenty of demand in Washington and elsewhere for policy-actionable research on international affairs, and there is a subset of scholars…

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History as a resource for the future?

Selling history to policymakers is a challenge, particularly in a political culture that prizes numbers above all else.  As historians, we can pitch the relevance of our work in a number of ways: writing policy papers (and blogs), speaking on platforms provided by the media and by political parties, collaborating with think tanks, responding to consultations, among others.  The the ‘temptation to assert the importance of one’s discipline to the making of “better” policy’ is hard to resist’ [1].  But however cogently we press our case for relevance, there’s a limit to how effective we can be in influencing policymaking – as long as we’re still ‘pitching’ from the outside.
Historians need to be more than purveyors of the past.  We can provide judiciously assembled and intellectually stimulating accounts of policy challenges encountered and addressed (or not) that shed light on the dilemmas of the present.  But our reach will be limited unless we can show that history offers not just access to the past but fresh ways of seeing.  Thinking historically means inspecting our assumptions about how issues are connected and what options are open to us.  It invites us to consider how we frame our questions and approach our responses to them.  Doing so means working as an insider.
But we seem unable or unwilling to dislodge the belief that history is just ‘stuff’: the litany of names and dates assumed to be the field’s contribution to human knowledge.  Nor have we generally been inclined to give up the privileges of the academic outsider: to be able to inform, critique and admonish without having to be involved in the messy and complex negotiations involved in policymaking.
By responding to the Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into civil service skills, History and Policy provides a welcome challenge to ‘history as stuff’.  History as a resource for the future highlights how well the network’s activities inside Whitehall have been received (‘engaging’ and ‘enjoyable’ are notable judgements on the part of senior officials).  A potential collaboration with Civil Service Learning sounds promising, as it points to the potential for embedding history in the training and professional development of officials.  There is a good case to restore a ‘history core’ to civil service training.  As the response states, it may help attune officials to the importance of context, enable the more informed use of comparison, and encourage them to turn routinely to historical materials as they brief, advise and inform.
The response is spot on in highlighting the importance of historical skills.  Developing proficiency and confidence in primary source search and analysis should help extend the range of material on which officials can draw.
But historical skills can do more than make ‘substantive historical content’ available to policymakers.
The risk is that historical skills are only deployed when historical ‘content’ is deemed relevant: often in the preliminary phases of policy formulation, when the scope of background research is fairly open.  History can easily just be historical perspective: an interesting and thought-provoking look backwards.  It’s illuminating but not influential.
That’s what sounds alarm bells for me in the warm and enthusiastic comments of the senior officials quoted in the consultation response.  History fascinates, it engages the intellect and the imagination.  A concern to ‘capture’ the learning from the workshops, to share it more widely and to ‘create opportunities for civil servants to collaborate more closely with historians in relevant fields’ is commendable, and a real testament to History and Policy’s work.
But, like professional development courses more generally, it’s a challenge to translate them from the seminar room into the office.  Even the best and most stimulating can probably only kick off a process of reflection and change in our practice.  When the historians have gone back to their universities and the officials to their departments, what next?
We need organisations to bridge between academe and policy, but we also need historians on the inside.  Secondments and exchanges should be valued within an academic career, and historians should be sought-after experts for teams making, reviewing and implementing policy.  History is not just a repository of ‘stuff’, a lost property office whose doors are opened every so often for the fleeting intellectual engagement that exploration offers.  History is indeed a resource for the future, but we need to explain how – and then show how.

[1] Sylvia K. Kraemer, “Policy Advisors: Historians and Making Policy,” in Public History: Essays from the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 2004), pp. 218-9.

‘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.

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?