Thursday, 18 June 2015

Finding a new way...

As I've mentioned in the past, I've been on a very specific track with respect to my career: since the age of 12, I've wanted to be an historian working in the Public Service. That's it. Pretty straightforward and simple. Not in a university, not in a research firm, but in the Public Service. For the last 15 years, that's pretty much exactly what I've been doing. I research, I write, I present, I analyse, I discuss, I debate and I argue various points of history relating to my department as it impacts policy, programs, politics and relations. For most of these years, I've been a fairly content public servant (I must admit, being from a public servant family, I knew what I was getting into). I've long known the challenges and frustrations of government work: a huge bureaucracy and slow decision making, the weird balance between policy and politics, and that significant elements of my fate are in the hands of people who I'll never meet (which is, of course, no different than in any other workplace).

Of late, I've found myself questioning not only my place in the Public Service but also questioning what role my work as an historian plays in how things work around here. While I clearly identify as an historian, I also wear the hat of a "policy analyst" - that oddly generic and nebulous term meaning those who craft, design and assess policy. This duel life has been interesting because it's allowed me to use history, historical evidence and historical thinking to try to change and influence how government policy is crafted and understood. That being said, I've also been incredibly frustrated by the wide spread dismissal of history by my colleagues when they design new policies. There appears to be an inherent belief that History is only good to for "answering questions" and that it can't be a useful tool in helping craft better and more responsive policies. That's "in the past" I'm told, and "we need a new starting point, and not dwell on all the bad stuff". As I work in the oldest administrative institution in Canada (260 years and counting...) with issues that are based on centuries old policies and programs, I've never understood the reasoning behind these statements. How can we come up with new policies and programs if we don't understand how we got here in the first place? As I've argued for long hours with countless colleagues, we need to know the historical context of the issues at hand, as well as how they've evolved, what's been tried (and failed) before, and what are the trends that will impact the application of the policies being proposed. More than once have I wanted to smack my head against a wall in frustration. 

This frustration, coupled with a growing sense for a need to reinvent my role and my work (a task I undertake every few years to ensure that what I'm doing is relevant, useful and meets my interests and needs), has led me tackle this issue directly. As of late August and for the following year, I'm going to dedicate myself to the task of finding a way to demonstrate the inherent value of historical research and historical thought to the public policy making process. I realise that this also means stepping out of the frame of the Public Service and look at these questions from an outside perspective. This means that I'll be leaving my post here at AANDC (well kinda...I'll still be doing some things for the Department) and through the Public Servant-in-Residence program, joining the Department of History at Carleton University in Ottawa. There, I'll be leading a comprehensive study of the modern policy making process and seeking ways to enhance analysis through the use of historical research. Ultimately, the goal is to see if there's a way to redirect policy making towards an approach focussed on "evidence based" policy development. Only time will tell if I'll be successful.

As well as teaching a few classes at Carleton, I'll be commenting on my findings and my progress here (as well as during the upcoming mini-con in October and hopefully at the NCPH annual meeting in Baltimore in March 2016).