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Repackaging History for Policy Purposes

by Francesca Beddie,
National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER)

 

I congratulate the founders of the Australian Policy and History initiative. Encouraging better use – and avoiding abuse – of history is an important cause. It is one I advocated to my colleagues in a paper presented to the Professional Historians Association of NSW a couple of years ago. As I see it, we must assert the place of history in the making of public policy and in the evidence base upon which that policy should be founded.

History has two distinct capabilities to offer policymakers. The first is an antidote to short-term thinking and the loss of institutional memory. Here the ‘value add’ is the ability to see problems in a continuum rather than as a crisis, which started only today or yesterday. The historian’s instinct is to ask what the story is, what patterns are emerging, how things today are different or similar. Such analysis can suggest alternative ways of responding to a problem or asking the question differently.

Secondly, the discipline of history can cultivate strong analytical skills. By thinking about context and contingency, by appreciating the complexity and limitations of human endeavour, historians can help policymakers avoid dangers such as defining a problem in terms of the desired solution or ignoring issues that do not fit with a preferred course of action. They also can foster greater caution in the deployment of the historical analogy, so that politicians draw on history not merely to justify actions but also as a signpost of difference.

History, despite these strengths, currently plays little part in governmental processes and does not meet its potential as a contributor to wider policy debate. One explanation for this perhaps is the different rhythms of historical research and policy development. Another is a narrow interpretation of evidence consisting of statistics and modelling or randomised controlled trials and the like. In all the recent talk of evidence-based policy, there has been too little attention paid to the need for careful thinking about what data are needed and why.  An historical perspective would help clarify what evidence we need to preserve to help us look back and assess the impact of policy interventions.

Instead, the public record is under threat. Documentary evidence is becoming ever more captive to the sanitising mindset of governments and the cleansing capacity of technology. The advent of the Post-it note and Freedom of Information legislation and electronic communication means the richness of the decision-making process is being lost. No longer are archives full of insightful or witty or scathing margin notes; the identities behind the written documents are being erased.

The difficulties of engaging with the crude, real-time world of the media is another possible reason why history is poorly represented in policy development. In her recent selection of essays Agamemnon’s Kiss, Inga Clendinnen remarked that you can’t do history on the opinion pages. I would argue that what historians can do on those pages is encourage consideration of alternative policy directions by presenting different interpretations of the past.

This calls for getting better at arguing the relevance of one’s work to contemporary preoccupations. It does not imply dumbing down the results of historical research. It does mean packaging those results in ways that will entice the audience.

Here historians have an advantage over econometricians and social scientists who often find it hard to tell a story about their research or to put a human face to their analysis. The historian’s disadvantage lies in the poor appreciation of the relevance of historical thinking to public policy. One way to enhance that understanding might be to present history not as a static reflection on the past but as a series of ‘interim reports’ on the results of human endeavour: reports that as well as helping us work out what happened in the past can make us smarter in how we deal with the present and the future. I look forward to reading many of those reports on the Australian Policy and History website.

Citation: Francesca Beddie, Repackaging History for Policy Purposes. Australian Policy and History. April 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/repackaging-history-for-policy

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