Public service: the role of history and historians in government

26 Aug 2013

In March 2013, a former head of the civil service in the United Kingdom, Lord Butler of Brockwell declared:

I believe that each department should appoint a historical adviser, not to advise on the historical background to every problem which a department has to manage – no single person could have the expertise to do that – but to put the policy-makers in contact with a source of such expertise.[1]

This sparked a cacophony of voices in support. Sir David Cannadine – a prominent English historian currently teaching at Princeton – observed that

Most government ministers live very intensely in the present. They often don’t know much about the history of their department when they weren’t in charge of it. They aren’t allowed to see the papers of their predecessors, and live in some historical vacuum.

Closer to home, the head of the Department of Defence Dennis Richardson, once a student of the Sydney University historian Neville Meaney, is championing history as part of the training needed by public servants. He has instituted short courses in history for graduates both in his old Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in Defence as a start to rounding out individuals trained in other disciplines. Richardson has done so because he worries that, without at least some understanding of the historical context, these officers will not be able to formulate views on the matters before them; they will become mere issues managers.

Moreover, without knowledge of the historical record, and openness to different interpretations of the facts, public servants and politicians risk taking bad decisions, sometimes, as we saw in Iraq, with fatal consequences.

In both the UK and Australia, it is in the foreign affairs and defence portfolios that historical advisers still exist. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth public service, history appears to be an ad hoc affair. Historical perspectives are introduced by individuals who recognise their role or by significant milestones that seem worthy of commemoration. But not even the department responsible for heritage lists history as a discipline that might be desirable in prospective graduate recruits.

There are, of course, the National Archives of Australia (NAA), which perform a vital role in records management and in making documents accessible. Moreover, archivists do understand that, to quote the NAA website, “the significance of an individual document lies not only in its content but in its context”.[2] And they do raise awareness of the need to preserve the evidence of how public policy is formulated and implemented. How much easier that might be were there greater promotion of historical ways of thinking across the public service!

Two American professors of history, Andrews and Burke, have encapsulated historical thinking into the concepts of “change over time”, “causality”, “context”, “contingency” and “complexity”.[3] These five Cs should be in the kit bag of anyone grappling with public policy.

Returning to Butler. He put the view that historical advice would be particularly useful when considering civil service reform, noting that “a lot of what has been proposed in the government’s latest programme for reform was actually done in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was head of the civil service”.

In Australia too historical perspective is useful for those in the midst of reform frenzy. Take education as an example. Unlike Foreign Affairs, the federal education department has no historical section – if it did it would be hard pressed to define its scope, given the regularity with which the department changes its shape and focus, not to mention its ministers! Some historical memory could help short-circuit the rediscovery of ideas long-since tested and avoid obstacles in implementing new policy.

The tertiary education system does have the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), where I worked from 2007 to 2012. NCVER’s remit has broadened from vocational education and training (VET) to doing research into all post-compulsory training. NCVER has a clear responsibility: to inform policy and practice in tertiary education and training. Therefore its research is decidedly applied and its publications aim to engage policy makers and practitioners.

NCVER does not do much history. Again, it’s usually work driven by individual interest and squeezed into the budget. That said, one recent project commissioned by the then federal departments of innovation and education explicitly sought an historical perspective, which resulted in an excellent essay by Robin Ryan, a prominent player and researcher in VET policy, who trained as an historian.[4]

Several factors combined during my time as general manager to push a bit more history-making: Ryan’s essay, my interests and the revamping of VOCED website, a fantastic repository of research about tertiary education and its connections to work and society. Thanks to the drive of the librarians responsible for the site we grasped an opportunity to digitise landmark policy documents and publish these – something Australian Policy Online is now doing with its policy history collection.[5]

Ryan’s essay pointed to the waves of reform that mark the history of VET policy. This led us to create timelines to illustrate these waves and identify the major documents associated with the reforms. We did this again when NCVER was engaged to do background work for an expert panel on apprenticeship reform. That exercise resulted in a timeline on apprenticeship policy and an essay by Brian Knight. The Evolution of apprenticeships and traineeships in Australia: an unfinished history[6] exposed the enduring issues the apprenticeship system faces, in particular the necessity of a solid general education as well as technical skill development to be part of an apprentice’s training. It also reminded us of the generally conservative attitude to the system, which only in recent decades has been subject to significant reform.

Has this modest foray into history had an impact on public policy?

The government did not heed all the advice NCVER offered on the apprenticeship system, in which louder voices – notably, employers and unions -- than those of researchers of any hue prevail. But behind the scenes there do seem to have been some changes. For example, the types of apprentices being funded have been pared back.[7] As is unfortunately the norm, this policy shift was not accompanied by any articulation of the sources on which it was formulated. It is a great pity for historians that public servants hardly ever use footnotes. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to assume that some lessons from history seeped into policy formulation.

Another function of Knight’s essay was to prompt a considered response from a past player. This is an important feature of histories of administration, which become a way, either directly through oral histories or by instigating reflections and critique, to get insider views onto the record. While such views may be skewed by time and place, they are important illuminators of how policy evolves. Capturing how policy develops from those once involved may well be becoming even more important in the age of the post-it note, email and fear of Freedom of Information releases.

People do visit the history resources NCVER has compiled, as recently revealed in a lively discussion about the history of VET in a LinkedIn forum. The statistical time series are particularly popular.


Historical advice does have a place in public administration. The question remains how this is best provided. The former US Senate Historian Richard Allan Baker did so with a historical minute at the weekly Democratic conference meeting:

For the past 12 years, I have greatly enjoyed observing senators in this informal closed-door setting. That experience has offered unsurpassable insights into the Senate’s culture and has helped me to establish a close professional association with some current members. One recently told me that these historical vignettes about key personalities and events from the Senate’s past remind him and his colleagues “that we are not the first ones to serve here and that today’s issues are not as novel as we think they are”.

I’m not sure this would be feasible at a Labor caucus meeting, and as resources are most unlikely to stretch to implementing Lord Butler’s recommendation of an advisor in every department, it is worth considering other options. Among these might be:

  • Ensuring a core function of maintaining historical documents within departments, with public officials obliged to keep full and accurate records.
  • Using historical analysis to consider past approaches to persistent policy issues, either by internal staff historians or by commissioning outsiders.
  • Fostering historical ways of thinking in the public service and beyond.

Greater engagement with policy makers will depend on historians using their craft to tell stories that matter in the contemporary world of sound-bites and tweets. Even then, history won’t offer the answers but it might provide a short-cut or two and help avoid at least some of the same mistakes being made again.

[1] accessed 27 June 2013

[2] (529) accessed 27 June 2013

[3] accessed 3 July 2013

[4] (211)


[6] (5403)

[7] See for example changes to existing worker apprenticeship funding announced in the 2012-13 budget

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