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)

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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)

Historian with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – a job with a history

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 Credit: FCO
Rohan Butler Credit: FCO

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.’[1]   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.

[1] 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.

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…

Public history and public policy: A view from across the pond

A re-blog of my recent post on the National Council on Public History’s Public History Commons, History@Work (comments welcome – please add to the original):

Looking from across the pond, the maturity and scale of public history as a discipline and a sector in the US is a striking phenomenon.  The narrative is well-established: the crisis in the academic job market; the emergence of new contexts for historical employment, in preservation, education and regeneration; the entrepreneurship of universities in structuring the supply of skilled professionals through new programmes emphasising workplace skills and experience.

The story is of course rather longer and more complex, nuanced and interesting than this, as I discovered during my comparative research on public history in different national settings.  In the UK, the contrast could not be more marked. The academic discipline here has also experienced periods of contraction and pressure.  But we have not seen the ‘push’ factor from higher education in terms of imagining (and foregrounding) the many pathways a historical education could lead to (and hence also what historical education could mean).  Nor is there much evidence of the ‘pull’ factor from employment markets such as government or business for historically-oriented roles.

The absence of such drivers for development and innovation is, I think, one element of the explanation for why public history in the UK remains rather tentative, even marginal, gaining some traction only in a few universities and remaining preoccupied with a narrower agenda than the American field.  Apart from a small number of pioneering MA courses, public history tends to be represented only by a single module in a ‘mainstream’ history programme.

One of the connections we have largely missed in the UK – to our detriment – is that between history and policy.  And here the US example is illuminating.   There have been some attempts to inform policy making–most notably the History and Policy network, which has done vital work in putting the cause of better public policy on the historian’s radar and raising the profile of the study of the past with politicians and the media.  These efforts have not, however, been located within a broader public history field.  One consequence of this, it seems to me, is that such efforts draw on the methodological models of academic history rather than seeking to create user-oriented and collaborative alternatives.

The importance of such alternatives is persuasively put by Duncan Macrae, Jnr and Dale Wittington in their 1997 work on expert advice for policy choice.  As few policy problems can be addressed by one expert community alone, cooperation and division of labour across disciplinary boundaries is needed to equip the decision-maker with the best possible advice. Communication must run, they argue, not only between experts but also between experts and users – and in both directions.  Macrae and Whittington draw attention to the benefits of having instruction in public policy analysis built into training in the basic disciplines, so that graduates are able to translate their specialism into salient policy advice (whatever the context they may work in).  History is only given a passing reference, but the work has much to offer the wandering public historian with an interest in policy.

I hope that as the academic history community in the UK develops its undergraduate and graduate programmes in public history, we will be open to such possibilities.  There is much we can learn from the US in this regard.  We should also take note of how early in the development of the professional discipline a sense of the importance of historians’ contribution to democratic institutions and processes emerged (for example, Benjamin Shambaugh’s School of Iowa Research Historians).

I am very much looking forward to hearing Shambaugh’s biographer and former NCPH President, Professor Rebecca Conard, speak at this year’s Higher Education Academy conference on Teaching History in Higher Education.  Public History can and should be so much more than museums and archives, heritage and commemoration, important as those dimensions are.  It is, in Alfred J. Andrea’s words, the application of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’.  And that is a definition worth aspiring to.

Complementarity between disciplines 2: policy advice

In the domain of public policy advice, the case for an approach based on the complementarity of disciplines and professions should be a strong one.  Only very few policy problems lie within the domain of one community, as Macrae and Whittington emphasise in their work on Expert Advice for Policy Choice.  Cooperation and division of labour – involving reading each other’s literature, contributing jointly to technical debates and working together on projects – should be good practice in marshalling expertise, which can then be fed into an iterative process of formulating and assessing policy alternatives.

Economists, statisticians and social researchers have established specialist pathways in the civil service, suggesting that the range of professional inputs into policy development is rather limited.  Admittedly, it emerges that Macrae and Whittington have the quantitatively-oriented disciplines in mind, and so the structure would fit with their model in that sense.  However, the book does raise the question as to whether a broader and more genuinely interdisciplinary approach would be to the benefit of our public policy.

To give just one example, political mapping and scenario development would be greatly enhanced by a historical mindset.  In essence, they’re describing a version of Neustadt and May‘s “placement“: the development of a contextualised understanding of actors (both individuals and organisations) to enable their later positions and actions to be anticipated in a more informed and nuanced way.

There is much to be taken from the Macrae/Whittington book in terms of challenging the inclinations of the “basic disciplines” to regard “user” values and priorities as of less relevance or importance than those of their own communities.  The call for responsiveness and collaboration in addressing the questions posed by policymakers is well-made.  But there is much more to be done to convince not only policymakers, but also the specialist groups that currently have a privileged position with regards to policy advice, that historians have an important, complementary contribution to make.