Rachel King studied classics as an undergraduate, before completing a PhD in archaeology and ancient history and joining the Civil Service in 2008. Her first job was at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. She moved to the Prime Minister’s Private Office at 10 Downing Street, and then to the Treasury where she is currently Programme Manager for the Budget and Autumn Statement.
Her use of history has progressed from working with politicians and senior civil servants interested in their own history and that of the institutions they work for, to exploring how history can be used to help her and her colleagues solve more contemporary problems. She describes this as moving from the ‘history of’ government, to ‘history for’ government policy makers.
This case study highlights the importance of relevance, context, and the use of different types of evidence, and offers some advice for historians wishing to engage with those involved in high-level decision making and policy development.
After working for a brief period at the Cabinet Office, Rachel King was invited to apply for a job in the Prime Minister’s Private Office. She spent two years working for the Permanent Secretary Jeremy Heywood and, after the 2010 General Election, directly for the Prime Minister David Cameron. One of her projects was to update the 10 Downing Street website.
'On the website that I inherited, there was some very tired material about the history of No. 10 and the role of the Prime Minister. I thought there was a great opportunity to create something more interesting and engaging and this led to a project in which I made contact with History & Policy for the first time, and also with some colleagues in the then Mile End Group at Queen Mary. This led to lots of new content and an ongoing programme of seminars for staff working in government.'
Jeremy Heywood and the Prime Minister were enthusiastic and supportive.
'To launch the new website the Prime Minister hosted a reception and we invited quite a number of practising historians and former Cabinet secretaries and we got the digital communications team involved in making sure the website was promoted on social media.'
At that time, senior politicians and civil servants were primarily interested in understanding and sharing the history of 10 Downing Street and the institution of Prime Minister, rather than identifying historical precedents for current issues, or the contribution that historical methods can make towards professionalising government policy making.
'When I reflect on how I’ve used history in some of my different roles, it is not a firm dividing line, but there is a distinction between the ‘history of’ Whitehall institutions, and using history in policy making, and my work at 10 Downing Street was quite firmly in the former category.'
After two years at 10 Downing Street, Rachel King moved to the Treasury. She was keen to maintain the links she had built with historians and started thinking about how this would work best in her new position.
'There was already a Treasury history society, which was focussed on the history of the Treasury – of the buildings, of its role and so on – but through History & Policy I put in place a seminar series that was linked to my role at the time, working on the 2013 Spending Review. As part of our preparations I worked with History & Policy on a series of seminars, all about previous periods of economic and financial crisis.'
One of the first seminars was on the Geddes Axe in the 1920s, with others on the IMF and more recent crises in the 1970s and 1980s.
'Part of my role was putting in place a wider programme of events to educate and inform and engage staff in the wider process of doing a spending review and cutting department budgets. So running these historical seminars formed one part of that wider educational programme.'
Since then she has organised other seminar series, on themes such as the history of taxation and the Treasury’s relationships with other organisations, such as the European Union and the IMF.
The idea behind the seminars was to not necessarily say: this idea was used in 1922; I am going to adopt it in my work. It was less direct that that. The motivation was more to encourage staff to think broadly and creatively and to expose them to historical evidence as another very rich data set to use in their own policy making.
The Treasury has a high turnover of staff, with an average age of around 30. In May 2015, at the time of the general election, less than half the staff had worked in the department during the previous election in 2010.
'So there are people around who don’t have institutional memory going back even a few years, and a lot of younger people who haven’t studied history since they were at school. I think there is a value in exposing people to broader context and understanding how political, economic currents have shaped where we are today.'
It can be quite challenging to persuade busy civil servants to give up an hour of their time to attend a seminar, especially if the subject is not directly related to their work. She finds that organising a series of seminars around a particular theme can help increase attendance.
'Not everything we have done has been within a theme, but we found that it works quite well, because people tend to come back if you can maintain a bit of momentum and advertise that this is part of a series of seminars.'
She found it was important to choose relevant topics and promote them within the department.
'The historians I’ve worked with in History & Policy have been incredibly helpful here. We have always come up with a short, ideally quite eye-catching summary on what the seminar is about. I then try to link that in a few sentences with my view of why learning about some of these historical examples might be of interest and benefit.'
Speakers at events have included former politicians, civil servants and journalists, as well as academic historians. She thinks it is important to be willing to experiment with different formats, to discover what works best.
As she described in an earlier filmed interview for History & Policy, King worked with H&P to develop a new and highly successful interactive workshop format, the first of which explored the relevance of debates in the 1970s over London’s third airport to current issues of expanding airport capacity. The workshop format will continue to be developed and is being used for topics such as rail policy and the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
'I think the workshop format is particularly interesting when it enables civil servants to follow through how a similar problem was addressed in the past, what were the different stages of decision making, who were the people involved, and to hopefully draw lessons that will be valuable for what they are trying to do today.'
Rachel King identifies three benefits for civil servants attending seminars: opening their eyes to a wider context for their work, introducing them to new sources of evidence, and introducing them to different analytical tools and techniques.
History complements other forms of evidence widely used in government. In her view, one unique benefit of history is that it provides a long-term perspective:
'It’s the long time series, the ability to know what happened next; what the outcome or the ramifications of an episode and the response to it were. I think that the distance that you can obtain from looking at a historical case study is very valuable.'
A further benefit of history lies in offering a different approach to evidence from other disciplines, such as economics or statistics, and in particular a willingness to look at a range of different sources and make a judgement on the significance of each.
'The different methodological approach – obviously there is not just one – but the range of methodological approaches that historians might use, and exposing people to these, is valuable. It is a different discipline and provides a different perspective from what an economist or a statistician might offer.'
'The airports workshop is a good example, where we used archival sources, Cabinet papers and so on, but also newspaper reports and data series. You could potentially add to this oral histories and personal accounts. I think that the richness of being able to look across all these sources is valuable.'
In her own work, Rachel King used historical evidence when she was asked to review the fiscal year – the annual pattern of a Spring Budget and Autumn Statement – and advise ministers on whether it could or should be changed, following the outcome of a general election.
'So my immediate problem was that I couldn’t possibly come up with options looking forward, or even think about why might we want to change it and, if so, what were our challenges and options, without understanding where that model comes from. So I started by doing a historical survey.'
She consulted a diverse set of sources, internal and external. She read papers written by Treasury officials in the 1990s, shortly before the Budget was moved to the Autumn, in a short-lived experiment between 1993 and 1996; she looked at election outcomes and previous occasions when elections had been followed by a second budget, with or without a change of government; and she explored the history of budgets going back to the 1970s.
A historical approach gave her a different perspective on the questions she was asked to think about: could we do things differently, has someone tried this before, and what would happen if we moved to a different starting point?
Civil servants attending her seminars and workshops nearly always find them interesting, but understanding what happens afterwards, and whether the knowledge gained has been applied in their work, can be difficult:
'I think that is a really big challenge and I do not pretend to have cracked it. Follow-up can take different forms. Approaching a policy problem in a different way and from a different direction is very valuable – but that is not to say it is more or less valuable than using the content gained at a seminar to directly inform work on advice for a minister on a particular issue. Both are valuable.'
History & Policy plays an invaluable role acting as a broker between historians and policy makers:
'If your day job is as a civil servant, even if you think it will be really interesting to gain a historical perspective on a particular problem, how do you know where to start? From where I sit I don’t know who is working on what topics, or what university they might be in. I think History & Policy, and some other organisations, but History & Policy in particular, plays a really invaluable role in being able to bring together the interests of policy makers on the one hand, and historians on the other, and matching them.'
She found it was very helpful to be able to develop ideas together with History & Policy staff:
'For example in the run up to the election, and the year leading up to it, we did quite a lot of work in the Treasury on policy around taxation. I thought that would be a very interesting topic to look at: how different taxes had evolved over time, and any periods when there had been a significant report or significant change. So I had this idea, but it was through talking to colleagues at History & Policy that I was able to develop it and articulate what – and who – we might be looking for.'
Based on her experiences as a civil servant and policy maker at the Treasury, Rachel King offers the following tips for historians wishing to engage with civil servants and government policy makers:
Rachel King is Political Counsellor at the British Embassy, Japan, leading on bilateral issues (including the 2016 G7 summit and 2020 Olympics) and media and communications. Until July 2015 she was Programme Manager for the Budget and Autumn Statement at HM Treasury, part of a small team advising the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Budget policy, responsible for all aspects of project management, planning and logistics, and for public narrative and presentation.
H&P is an expanding Partnership based at King's College London and the University of Cambridge, and additionally supported by the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Leeds, the Open University, and the University of Sheffield.
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