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)

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.

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.