Our director, Carolyn Holbrook, was invited to participate in an international panel about history and policy at the recent American Historical Association conference in New York, with Dane Kennedy from the National History Center and Charles Kraus from the Wilson Center in Washington DC and Andrew Blick from History and Policy in London.
The panel discussed the increasing appetite for historical perspectives on major international issues such as climate change and declining trust in democracy. It also discussed the challenges of communicating historians’ work to policy makers and measuring their impact on public policy.
Below is an extract from Carolyn’s presentation on 4 January 2020.
Australian Policy and History is gaining an increasingly strong foothold in the academic history community in Australia. This squares with my impression more generally that policy history is a rising field. I think there are several reasons for the growth of policy history, but I will just mention a couple of major ones. The first driver is concern about the state of democratic governments around the world. This point is so commonly made, it has become a cliché. But it’s no less true for that. While Australia has not experienced the extraordinary political upheaval of Britain or the United States, we are infected by a milder strain of populism and similar polarisation. We have had seven prime ministers in eleven years. Our voters—voting is compulsory in Australia—are highly disenchanted with the political process. The recent Australian Electoral Survey showed that Australians’ trust in government is at an all-time low.[i] Urgent policy challenges like rising inequality and climate change seem beyond the capacity of our political leaders to address.
We are experiencing catastrophic bushfires this season, but our conservative government, with its connections to the coal industry and its rump of climate change deniers, is unable to devise a credible climate change policy.
I believe that this near-crisis of Western political systems—this sense of the fragility of long-standing democratic systems—lends a new urgency to academic history. The times beckon us to tackle directly issues of civic, political and policy history, to shed historical light on current difficulties, and ideally, to suggest ways forward.
The second driver of policy and history networks is the way that government policy is shaping academic history. I gather that the situation in Australia reflects the situation elsewhere. Academic historians in Australia are increasingly being judged by our capacity to demonstrate that our work has practical application. There was controversy in 2018 when it was revealed that our Education Minister had vetoed eleven humanities research grants, worth $4 million, which had been approved by a rigorous and independent process of peer review.
In response to criticism, the government introduced a new national interest test that applies in addition to the existing national benefit test. For better or worse, historians are increasingly asked to conceive their research in terms of practical benefit or national benefit. There is certainly an ideological component to these changes in Australia—they have been made by a conservative government and opposed by the Labor Party. And ‘national interest’ can be conceived as an expectation that research will extol, rather than criticise, the state. But in the context of diminishing research funds, I think that even the political left will demand more impact and engagement from academic historians. Policy history—historical research that seeks to inform public policy—fulfils the national interest test by its very nature.
We have two primary audiences at Australian Policy and History. The first of these is public servants. We reach them through the content published weekly on our website. We publish 800-word opinion pieces written by historians about any area of historical research that pertains to a contemporary policy issue. We also run longer pieces of 2000-3000 words, which we call APH Essays. Other formats we publish include our policy briefs, written in the style of a public service briefing note.
Our second audience at Australian Policy and History is historians themselves. A senior public servant I met in the course of my work with Australian Policy and History told me that historians were ‘invisible’ in the public policy debate. He said: ‘If historians can’t learn to condense their 100,000-word books into a two-page policy briefing note, then they’re never going to be listened to.’ I got a similar response from someone who worked as a speechwriter for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He said of academics: ‘You’d ring them to ask whether they could give you some information about a particular topic. And they’d say “no … but I’ve just written this great article about blah, blah, blah and go on to tell you about this completely different topic”.’
One of my principal goals at Australian Policy and History is to equip historians with the skills that will allow them to communicate their research to the people who can make practical change. How do we do this? One way is by the articles we publish on the website, which require historians to be brief and practically focused. Another is by putting public servants and historians in the same room, which we do at our conferences. We also hold workshops for historians about how to communicate our work to policy audiences. We recently held a webinar for historians, run by a practising Victorian public servant, about how to create a PowerPoint deck, because ‘decks’ seem have replaced policy briefing notes as the briefing tool of choice. The more that historians can speak to public servants in their language, the better.
In conclusion, there are structural, historical reasons for the divide between the academy and the public service in Australia. And it will take time, effort and resources to bridge this divide. We are hoping that Australian Policy and History can become bigger and better-resourced. And I am hopeful that the growth of policy history, in Australia and internationally, will be a positive force for both academic history and for the societies in which we live.
[i] Australian National University, Australian Election Survey, 2019.