Monday, 7 March 2016

How to Get Them to See the Value of History: Prove it!

Last Friday, Carleton's History Department invited me to discuss my current research (in case you missed it, I'm currently the Public Servant-in-Residence in the History Department and I'm looking into role of historical research in the development of Public Policy).

This was an opportunity for me to layout some of the concepts that I've been mulling over for the past months and to have my colleagues, both faculty and public servants, challenge my thinking. I was looking to do two things though my presentation: 1- present the current landscape on this issue to those who aren't directly connected with it; and 2- seek their collective wisdom as to the ongoing direction of my research. I was very pleased with the depth of the questions posed as they went to straight to the root of my analysis: mainly, how will we convince policy makers to see historical research in the same light as other forms of research. My short answer to that question was that we need to prove that it is useful. 

Fundamentally, my research is currently at a bit of a cross road. As my ultimate goal is to influence how policy is developed in the Canadian Public Service, I've realised that I will never be able to convince my colleagues to consider History (in every possible sense of the term) if I can't prove that it will actually make a difference. Can I show that historical research is useful for policy making? Where are the "real life" examples?

I've been searching the literature for months, trying to get a better understanding of both how policy making is discussed and the role historical research plays in developing policy options (as an aside, my life as a policy analyst in government is leading me to think that those who write about policy development haven't really "done" policy development as the reality of that process is far more messy than they seem to think it is, but that's a whole different blog post...). There are a few things that I've come to notice:
  1. All sorts of different types of research are considered useful for policy making, from statistical to economic to social, but historical research is nearly always absent. Simply put, History is not considered a useful tool in policy development.
  2. Those without an academic historical background writing about the development process do not seem to consider historical research, historical perspective or historical thinking as source material that will allow policy makers to craft better policy options. 
  3. Historians are the ones stating that historical research needs to be included in policy development, not policy makers themselves.
As Francis Gavin states in "Lessons of History - History and Policy": "Policy makers are not interested in the past for its own sake - therefore they are always looking for "usable" knowledge that provides guidance for the future." For her part, Alix Green takes this point even further, in her dissertation Using History in Public Policy Development, by stating that "for history, there's is a clear tension between the kind of contribution it can make - which tends towards destabilizing certainty and generalization and involves interpretation and judgement - and a cultural emphasis on the bureaucratic machine through the application of "what works". Research needs to lead the policy maker towards a future policy option, and if it doesn't, it isn't useful to them. From my perspective and experience, if you can't show that History is usable, either because of its form or its approach, it can't fit into the "what works" model that policy makers must use to develop responsive policies.

As part of my search, I've been trying to identify those examples of "what works". And while I've found lots of discussion around how it "could" or "should" work, I'm still struggling to find actual, on the ground, examples of how it works and most importantly, how it influences the policy process.While organisations such as the History and Policy Network and the National History Center are striving to bring historians into contact with policy makers through a wide range of engagement activities (seminars, workshops, conference talks, training, publications, etc.), I've been struggling to find metrics showing how this engagement has influenced policy making in the end product. While it's an excellent sign that the Historians on the Hill series has political staffers from Congress in attendance, how is that trickling down to the policy makers in federal departments - those who actually write the policy, instead of those who decide the final vote? Or can the History and Policy Network show how its case studies influenced final policy options by pointing to where it made a policy process diverge? The History and Policy Network has an evaluation section on its website but there are unfortunately few details. It would be interesting to know if the 2014 Knowles review it cites undertook a vertical review to see how far down the line the work of the network is reaching into the British civil service.

If we truly believe that there is a role for for History in public policy development, we need to show not only why historical research is useful, but also demonstrate how it can influence in a productive way through "real world" examples. As the Overseas Development Institute states on its ROMA guide to policy engagement and policy influence, one of the fundamental steps in the successful development of public policy is to "Develop a monitoring and learning system". I would argue that we historians calling for greater inclusion of history in policy development have not really bother to undertake this important step. We aren't trying to measure (or quantify) our impact. We appear to be saying "Do this because we know History and it's important". From my experience as a policy maker, telling me that I'm wrong and that you're right, really isn't the best way to influence decisions.

Maybe, it's because we aren't asking the right questions of policy makers. Instead of asking why isn't historical research being used, we may need to ask: Does the inclusion historical research actually lead to better policy options and outcomes? What is the depth of our impact? Are we making a difference? 

Do you know of any evidence to show the impact of history on policy making? Got your own perspective on how History can influence policy making? Let me know! @jp5morin