Friday, 30 May 2014

Public History, Public Service

For the past 16 years, I've been an historian, a government historian to be precise. Believe it or not, this was my actual career goal - to work in history within the confines of the federal Public Service of Canada. I've never wanted to be an academic or an historical research consultant. When I was 12 (back when I decided my career path...), I wanted specifically to work for Parks Canada, our agency responsible for national parks and historic sites. I even worked there for awhile as well as a few other departments before landing in my current position. By the time I was 26, my career goal was met and I was a government historian.

It didn't take me long to realise that what I thought my job as an historian should be didn't match up with what was expected of me. Where I thought I'd be doing core historical research and analysis of key moments of the history of my department, I quickly became involved with the development of policy, the assessment of programs and the elaboration of government positions. It has been a constant struggle to balance what the historical community would understand as "historian's work" and what government managers see as "policy work". Consequently, I have "historian's work" which includes historical research and analysis (and by this, I mean working on a specific historical research topic from the elaboration of the thesis through the research phase to the drafting of an article/report...just like all other historians), developing historical content for the department's website, developing and teaching history courses for government employees, responding to inquiries of an historical nature, and reviewing and commenting on historical research, as well as "policy work". In case you're not a public servant, policy work can be categorised as activities relating to the development of strategic government initiatives such as preparing briefing and presentation materials, writing discussion papers, and participating in discussions and meetings. 

It's important to note that I don't object to this dual role. I have an actual interest in how policy is developed and believe that the skills and abilities we cultivate as historians are beneficial to the policy making process. This also helps me find ways of using history to allow for a more profound strategic analysis. To paraphrase one of my colleagues, it's difficult to come up with good policy options if you don't know how you got into this mess in the first place!

As the years have rolled on, I've often stopped to ponder exactly what my role as both a Public Historian and as a Public Servant truly is, should be and could be (I should note that there's no such thing as a "public" historian in the Public Service as few understand the distinction - I'm just an historian and that's what it says on my business card). While there have been moments of great satisfaction and fulfilment from the work that I do, it is also punctuated with other moments of great frustration. There have been times when my work as an historian have been recognised as a valuable contribution while in others been told that History belongs in the past and it plays no role in a modern Public Service. For some of my colleagues, History is like a huge pot of soup and all you have to do is fish out the bits that you want - the rest of the time, the soup of history can just sit there unattended. This often leads to a dismissive attitude laced with a strong hint of criticism that historians are a waste of precious and limited resources (it should be noted that there are few government historians within the Public Service in Canada outside of Parks Canada and national museums - not surprisingly, as there appears to be an attitude that there's little value in having staff historians when you can simply hire a consulting historian).

I have also struggled with the unspoken attitude that being a generalist in the Public Service is preferred and that being a specialist is inherently negative. Historians are by definition specialists as we work in our specific fields of research and interest. As a government historian, I have tried to become as specialized as possible on the history of my department, the impacts of its policies as well as understanding and interpreting its legacy in a modern day context. I do this because I believe that an historian working within the public service is not only a gatherer of historical information who writes research reports but must also “translate” this historical information into something that can be used by other public servants. This can only be done through specialisation of research over an extended period of time. I am therefore always shocked when told that because I've spent 14 years doing the "same job" I am not a "well-rounded" public servant. I've been told several times that I'm limiting my career options by remaining "just" an historian or asked why I don't want to try something new (regardless of the fact that this is what I want to do). I believe that such an attitude is endemic to the public servants who believe that one must constantly be changing jobs so that you can "move up" while staying in the same box (to use good old government speak) makes you look unambitious and resistant to change. 

It's an odd feeling to realise that being an expert in a field is a strike against you...