The Inaugural Policy and History Workshop: Part 2

by Sarah Clarke,
Intern, Alfred Deakin Research Institute (ADRI)


The inaugural ‘Policy and History Workshop’ was held in April 2011, a year after the launch of the APH website. The aim was to assess the progress of the website to date, and discuss its future including uses for pedagogy, research and policymaking (See Part I ‘The Workshop’). The workshop allowed those in attendance-with varying levels of involvement with the APH Network-to engage in lively discussion about the role that history has to play in society, and in particular the future of the Network. International guests Professor Alan Booth (University of Nottingham, UK) and partner Jeanne Booth presented on the value that history teaching ‘at its best’ can and should offer modern graduates, and leading historian Professor David Reynolds (University of Cambridge, UK) reflected on his knowledge of and involvement with the British ‘History and Policy’ (H&P) website, offering some practical directives for moving the Australian project forward.

Both sites share a common goal, namely to promote informed debate and better public policymaking through a wider understanding of history. In recent years, however, a heightened focus on scholarly methods and academic pursuit has left history in what Reynolds referred to as a ‘tight disciplinary ghetto’, where its broader value is isolated from society. Consequently, he described the British History and Policy website as playing an important part in a larger process of attempting to reconnect history with the public – a role that the APH Network should also seek to play. Both websites must attract and engage a broad audience, and provide interesting materials that illustrate how historical perspectives are not only relevant to, but can enhance an understanding of, current affairs and issues. The motivation should not be on delivering a barrage of historical fact, but rather on emphasising the importance of history to society and encouraging people to ‘think more historically’ for themselves. The goals are extensive, and, subsequently, they cannot be achieved overnight. Reynolds stressed the importance of looking long-term or focusing on ‘the long game’. While it now has a functioning website, if the APH Network is to maintain momentum and move forward, it needs a dedicated team to oversee its development and an agenda of achievable and action-based goals.

The British History and Policy website launched in 2002, and, even with the attention of a dedicated team, Reynolds noted that it was still at least five years before the UK initiative was consolidated. Based at King’s College, the British website is a collaboration between five partners-from three institutions-with distinct roles. By 2006, H&P was in a position to employ a team to promote and develop the website. While retaining a focus on ‘the long game’, Reynolds asserted that there must be a continuous dialogue between people within the project to assess progress, and continually assign and re-assign specific roles and actions. Upon objective reflection of the APH Network he noted that, as a much younger project, there probably has not been a lot of opportunity to engage in this sort of dialogue yet. Reynolds nonetheless described it as an essential component in moving forward. He suggested that, like the H&P initiative, the APH Network would benefit from the appointment of a press officer to actively build the profile of the website, and an assistant to handle administrative requirements. While their objectives are the same, however, a vast difference exists between the resources available to the UK project and the APH Network.

At the workshop, co-founder of the APH Network Professor David Lowe of the Alfred Deakin Research Institute (ADRI) noted that most of the productivity has come from sporadic bursts of energy and ideas from otherwise busy partners whenever time permits. Apart from the web design and small subscription costs paid by ADRI, and some CAL funding available for commissioning articles, the labour and maintenance of the APH Network is unpaid. With the volunteers all working in other areas, time is a rare but essential resource. APH is a collaboration between ADRI, the University of New England (UNE), the History Council of New South Wales (HCNSW), and the Australian National University (ANU). It has recently finalised an Editorial and Management Committee (EMC) to administer the site, and an Advisory Board to provide both recommendations about relevant issues, and suggestions of authors to write about them. While the present financial resources will not allow the appointment of an external team, in light of Reynolds’ comments it seems the immediate aim for the APH Network should be to enter into a dialogue to define its team. The discussion should seek to delineate the particular roles and time commitments of its collaborators, the tasks of the individual EMC members, and the mechanics of the Advisory Board’s role. In the short-term, this might allow the APH Network to mobilise its available resources and maintain the momentum of the website. While retaining a focus on ‘the long game’, a goal for the longer term could be an exploration of further funding options to appoint a paid team.

In the initial stages, a draft Strategic Plan was created to outline the broad goals and aims of the APH Network. These provide a useful framework for understanding Reynolds’ suggestions. After launching the website, the focus was to be on:

  1. Informing public policy, newsmakers and the general public of the historical context to current affairs.
  2. Provoking informed debate around current affairs.
  3. Facilitating engagement between policymakers, the media, and historians.
  4. Professionalising the website so it can be comparable to other public information and news websites.
  5. Building the Network’s profile and increasing the website’s audience.

The goals of informing, provoking and engaging an audience rely on the content, productivity, and dynamism of the website. Reynolds noted that the first considerations of an online resource should be the attraction of a broad audience and the ability to engage them upon arrival.

Without the resources to employ a dedicated press officer in the short-term, the APH Network must find ways of promoting the website. Reynolds suggested that for the H&P website a useful means of attracting broad attention has been via the establishment of connections with other organisations. He warned, however, that in order to maintain impartiality it is crucial to not become too heavily aligned with any one group or political party. The British project has strong links with a variety of initiatives and organisations, including the widely read BBC History Magazine and more official history bodies such as the British National Archives. It also connects with groups to create a particular influence on policymaking. It regularly brings professional historians together with trade unionists at its ‘Trade Union Forum’. This considers union issues against their historical background in order to explore different perspectives for new policy. Finally, it is becoming increasingly relevant to British history pedagogy via an engagement with the British Academy, and, now, with a module on ‘History and Policy’ entrenched in the curriculum at King’s College.

The APH Network presently has reciprocal links on its website to the Australian Historical Association, and hyperlinks redirect visitors to the websites of the UK’s H&P project as well as the US History News Network (HNN). At the workshop, it was suggested that as a resource-light way of attracting a broader audience, the APH could identify and approach some accessible organisations to establish further links. Some suggestions included creating a correlation between the Deakin University research site ‘Deakin Research Online’ or similar research websites attached to the partner institutions. Another suggestion, by Dennis Glover, was for the possibility of a connection with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZOG) where our potential policymakers are trained. As another inexpensive means of broadening the audience, Professor Alan Booth suggested reaching out to community historical groups that may have great knowledge and a passionate interest in certain areas of history, but in light of the idea of an isolated history discipline, have not been involved by professional historians. Taking more time and research, goals for ‘the long game’ could be the establishment of beneficial relationships with a closer engagement to actual policymaking – comparable to the Trade Union relationship cultivated by the H&P project.

As an online source, Reynolds described the website as the main vehicle that the APH Network has to deliver its message and accordingly stressed that it will constantly require utmost attention. In light of the H&P experience, he emphasised the importance of making the website attractive to potential ‘consumers’ and keeping it fresh. In order for people to want to look at the site it must be updated regularly. With the hard work and creativity of web developer Tony Neylan, the APH website looks impressive and has the functions required to move forward. This includes a ‘latest news’ section, as Reynolds observed, by updating it with any interesting information, or by noting when a new article appears, this could be the most economical and time efficient way to keep the website fresh in the short-term.

While it is essential to maintain the quality of content, Reynolds further emphasised that to hold an audience it is important to retain momentum. This means attracting a steady flow of interesting articles that are relevant to current affairs. In its first year, the APH website published 43 articles from a range of contributors, and, in light of Reynolds’ comments, this must not stagnate. In order to actively engage and inform its audience the APH Network must continue to attract historians and other authors to write quality articles. The project does have some remaining CAL funding available to commission articles, providing the ability to choose some key areas or current issues in need of historical perspective and to approach historians to write on them. During broader discussion at the workshop it was suggested that to widen the website’s scope the Network could choose some ‘big picture’ issues, and approach historians and other authors with expertise in these particular areas. These would be topics that can be offered historical perspective in the short term, but will continue to need ongoing comment as they unfold further.

Once people have arrived at the website and familiarised themselves with its materials, they must have a reason to come back. Reynolds said that it is imperative for websites to follow through with what they set out to achieve. Whilst as a website the APH Network looks impressive, due to time and resource constraints there are some functions that do not yet function. It invites people to join a mailing list, but there is no regular circulation of information at this point. As an immediate, or short-term goal, the activation of a regular mailing list might further attract people to the website or retain an engagement with those already looking. Reynolds suggested that this could be as simple as an email notifying people that there are new articles on the website. Furthermore, while the APH Network is a functioning website it is not yet a fully-fledged ‘network’ in the truest sense of the term. The APH Network’s aim is to create a body of historians that can be approached to comment or provide information on historical context for politicians, policymakers and the media. Although significant progress has been made on this front, admittedly still much more development is needed. The British website provides inspiration, with its impressive network of historians who can be called upon to respond to any requests for information or for interviews with policymakers and journalists. Requiring more time and planning than the mailing list, the creation of the network function might form an ongoing goal, with research into the particular fields of expertise and possible historians to approach being the immediate considerations. Be it short or long term, Reynolds’ insightful reflections suggest that both of these functions must happen, or at least be scheduled into the APH’s action-based goals during its ‘long game’.

Whilst the website provides the content to inform the public, policymakers, and the media, it also aims to provoke debate and facilitate an engagement between these groups. The wider process of encouraging people to see a particular value in seeking historical context will be an ongoing one, but it was suggested that there are ways in which the APH Network could involve these target groups in the short term. He reminded attendees that ‘a lot of policy is politics’ and to understand the policy you often must understand the politics behind it. In order to engage politicians and policymakers in the short term, could the APH Network approach these groups to comment on material or issues of interest within the website? In a similar vein, the media-radio, online, print and television-can provide the widest exposure for any issues or topics in society. Reynolds suggested that approaching parts of the media to ask how they see ways in which history can be better framed for engagement with a more general audience. By considering these options, the APH Network could facilitate an instant engagement, broaden the scope of the website, and gain a greater understanding of how the wider public and policymakers can be effectively approached.

In light of Reynolds’ comments, it seems that the APH Network, like the H&P site, has an important role to play in the larger project of ‘reconnecting’ history with a wider audience, and subsequently providing the encouragement and tools to enable policymakers, the media and the public to seek historical context for themselves. While the APH Network had a start date, there is no end date. No time frame can be accurately placed upon how long it could take to provide an active link between historians, policymakers, the media and the public. In light of Reynolds’ reflections, it seems the long-term picture for the APH Network will depend upon how well it is able to mobilise its resources, and successfully engage an audience in the short term; and, then, how it can maintain momentum and consolidate its role in ‘the long game’.

Click here to revisit – Part I: The Workshop

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/part2-the-future