Getting it right: Using History to Inform Public Policy
by Dr Tanya Evans
On 3 December 2012, Nicholas Brown opened a symposium on history and policy at the ANU organized by Australian Policy and History (APH), in collaboration with the Research School of Social Sciences, ANU and the HC Coombs Policy Forum by asking the audience of historians, civil servants, politicians, political theorists and scientists whether there was an issue and interest around what historians might contribute to public policy and politics in Australia. By the day’s conclusion, the crowd of 180 answered with an emphatic ‘yes’.
When the organizers first mooted the idea for this event, they anticipated an intimate gathering of like-minded people convinced of the value of historical thinking and evidence for policy makers. They were delighted to see interest in the symposium mushroom well beyond their expectations and include participants from both sides of the fence. The morning’s keynote speaker Peter Shergold pleaded with historians to work on how to distil their work so that policy makers could access it – to work hard on ‘elevator pitches’ describing the relevance of their research.
Historians also needed to appreciate the short time frames within which civil servants worked. Pat Thane gave the afternoon’s keynote, cautioned against a ‘lessons from history’ approach and detailed her extensive experiences with the British History and Policy network and the ways in which she and others gauged the impact of her work. Throughout the day there was much talk of the advantages and disadvantages of historians being asked to prove the ‘impact’ of their research in the current international funding climate.
Despite some scholars’ misgivings, most participants agreed that it was helpful for historical researchers to think about the ways in which their work might make its mark on contemporary policy and political debate. Paul Harris stated that the ‘impact’ horse has bolted and while historians need to run to keep up, it is important that their aspirations remain realistic.
There was much talk about the different context for historians and policy makers in the UK and Australia. There are many more historians located in and around London than there are in Canberra. Britain might be obsessed with ‘golden ages’ while Australia was ashamed of its past. One of the most important conclusions was that productive work and collaborations were only possible with core funding, institutional support and long term security, as is the case with the British History and Policy network.
Where to from here? One participant (a former civil servant and now PhD student at ANU, of whom there were many dotted throughout the crowd) said that she hoped a more intimate conversation might take place between policy makers and historians. Thane’s many examples from the UK included the organization of events around particular issues including voluntary action and child maintenance as well as foreign affairs, the history of the press, parliament and the financial sector. Many of us are able to identify who should be talking to whom.
This is a call for historians to identify themselves as willing to communicate with policy makers and the media and to policy makers and the media to feel free to come knocking on our doors. As Brown concluded, historians and policy makers need to be proactive rather than reactive in their work.
Please join the APH, contribute an article and write an ‘elevator pitch’ making clear the relevance of your research. APH aims to provide a conduit for these conversations and here’s hoping that there will be many more.