From my experience as a policy analyst in the Canadian government and an departmental historian, the last thing any policy maker wants is someone to come and tell them "what they need to know" but who also doesn't become involved in the policy making process. Policy making is not necessarily a straightforward endeavour and, more often than not, the questions one had at the beginning of the policy process are rarely the ones that are being posed in the drafting of the final product.
For example, the initial policy question may be something such as "why are the education attainment rates of Indigenous Canadians lower than the rest of the population?". Here, a history of government policies relating to Indigenous education is vitally needed. All policy makers need to know the general history of what led to the reality they are facing. In other words, they need that context. Great, you may be saying, I know just the historian for you! But once the issue starts being beaten around the edges and smoothed out into a more concrete approach, the policy makers may realize that their policy is now about funding levels and the impact of a series of government expenditure controls. As they're now at the crunch phase, there's no time to go back to find the right academic historian, so they'll just go with what information they have on file...regardless of the fact that it only goes back as far as the previous administration's policy platforms.
In the end, what purpose did that initial contextual history lesson serve to the policy makers? While they may be better educated on the broad picture, they didn't have running access to the historian when things started to shift (and they ALWAYS shift as no policy document ever resembles the initial concept).
So what exactly am I saying here? That every policy unit needs an historian? Well, ultimately yes...but I know that not going to happen. So what do we need to do?
From where I sit, straddling both the academic History and the policy development worlds, the answers are actually hidden in the policy making process. This process, often been described as being similar to making sausages - no one really wants to know how they're made, is called the policy development cycle. Few people, however, have much of an idea how it works. It's actually pretty straightforward. Here's the basic elements:
- Identify/Define the issue
- Research the issue
- Analyse the findings
- Develop a policy approach
- Implement the approach
- Evaluate the approach
- start over...
You may look at that list and see "2. Research the issue" and say, well, that's where History fits in! While it definitely does play a role in the research phase, I argue that it also needs to inserted into every single step to the process. Ultimately policy makers need information and it needs to be specifically tailored to meet specific requirements. As many crashed and ill conceived polices can attest, when policy makers don't have that information readily at hand, they may well simply ignore the gap or turn to any other source that may seem to fill the need. My argument is that, to borrow form Alix Green, that the "Historian's toolbox" needs to be widely used as it allows those disposed to historical thinking to approach the different elements of the policy cycle and add significant value that ultimately strengthen analysis.
Over the last several years, I've tried to develop an approach that would insert historical concepts and thinking into the various steps of policy development. So if I were to take the six steps listed, I could start to apply different elements of the Historian's toolbox by asking specific questions and approaches that strengthen the analysis:
1. Identify/Define the issue
- All issues are based on an historical problem (on one level or another) so be a challenge function: examine the historical underpinning of the policy question - are the core historical assumption sound? If not, what aspects need to be adjusted? Are the policy makers considering all the historical influences? Is this a "historical" straw-man argument?
- Undertake the specific administrative history of the policy issue, then undertake a higher level historical examination to place that history into the broader context of interrelated policy histories. In other words, what is the context, and what's the context for the context of the issue.
- Policy analysis often focusses on social science research; we must be willing to participate in an interdisciplinary approach by showing how historical research can fill gaps in the analysis of other fields. For example, can historical evidence explain a sudden and unexplained spike in statistical research? Another approach would use the historical narrative as the foundation for the research of other disciplines.
- Policy documents must tell a "story" to convince policy deciders what to do. At this step, it's all about accuracy of interpretation and insuring that all statements and information of an historical nature are clear and accurate.
- Unless the policy is of an heritage nature, there's little to do here except sit back and watch it unfold...
- To understand if policy is effective, it needs to be assessed and evaluated. When the results come in, now it's time to start to draw comparisons to past experiences and to see if we can find analogies that can show effectiveness or failure of the policy itself.
This rough outline of an approach needs to be tested and refined. The policy development world is a very sceptical place - while they don't always use evidence to make their policy recommendations, they definitely want it when it comes to changing their ways of doing things.
I'd also state that the approach presented here requires change and adaptation on both sides: for policy makers to use history throughout the process; but also for historians to become directly involved in the policy process itself. For historians, that means we need to think about how we present our findings, what kind of products we create (and yes, they are most definitely products) and how we craft our message for maximum influence.
There's lots to talk about here and I hope you'll join in on the conversation.