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Where Influence Lies


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Policy is formed by preconceptions, by long implanted biases. When information is relayed to policy makers, they respond in terms of what is already inside their heads and consequently make policy less to fit the facts than to fit the notions and intentions formed out of the mental baggage that has accumulated in their minds since childhood.

Barbara W. Tuchman, Practicing History: Selected Essays

As the preceding quote implies, those in government drafting the policies that affect us all have their own personal reference points when tackling issues. Consequently, an important role that we, as historians, can play in the development of public policy is to provide the best possible information and perspectives to policy makers so that decisions are informed. As the recent post by Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri for their book The Power of the Past, as well as the one by Linda Risso on “History & Defence: Need for long-term reflection at a time of great change” argue, historians are well suited to present those big picture historical perspectives that can challenge those long held “notions and intentions” identified by Tuchman.

Of course, this goal of influencing policy making by helping frame the broader conceptual issues is a central tenant of the work of History & Policy, the National History Center in Washington DC, and Active History here in Canada.  Nor is this a new concept as it was espoused in the 1980s by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May with Thinking In Time: The Use of History for Decision Makers as well as Otis Graham with his program “History for Decision Makers” at the University of North Carolina Business School, amongst others. In an oversimplified nutshell, we meet with policy makers, share with them our historical perspective so that they are informed and then they go off and draft policies. But is this the only way history can be used in the development of public policy? While it is necessary for policy makers to have the best available information to make decisions, how do discussions of the use of analogy or historical perspective actually influence the final policies and decisions?

A foot in both worlds

As a public servant (as we are known in Canada) for the past 17 years, I have long been fascinated by the nature of the policy process: defining the core elements of the policy question; building arguments that balance political direction with the “public interest”; working with the constraint placed on drafters of policy by incredibly tight deadlines, just to name a few. As a public servant, I am in the interesting position of being both the historian and the policy maker. On one hand, I am the departmental historian for the Canadian department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs where I am responsible for providing historical context and information on policy issues relating to Indigenous peoples in Canada; while on the other hand, I am a senior policy analyst who is responsible for drafting memoranda to Cabinet and policy papers for senior officials and ministers.

Throughout my career, I have struggled to convince my colleagues and superiors that “history matters” when making policy decisions. For the most part, policy makers do want to know the “history”, but only for context and not as part of the policy analysis. As one Director General told me recently:

“History is backwards looking, and policy making is forwards looking, so why use history?”.

Influencing Policy

In a ministry such as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada where we are constantly facing policy issues that stem from the institution’s 260 year history of policies relating to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, the absence of history from the policy making process itself has led to inefficient and often counterproductive results. In my experience as both a participant and a witness to policy making, the use of history for contextual understanding, if it is used at all, can work against the development of effective public policy as it can lead to false sense of security. Policy makers think they understand the “history” but it plays no part whatsoever in the policy analysis. 

If history and historians are to truly contribute to public policy development, we need to be part of the entire policy process cycle. As the thousands of organisations and think tanks around the world who work on policy development note, such as the Overseas Development Institute’s ROMA initiative, the policy cycle includes issue identification, research, drafting, implementation and evaluation. We, as historians, have been focusing on issue identification but largely ignoring the rest of the policy process, especially the research phase that can only happen after a contextual understanding of the issue has been reached. We need to be embedded into the entire process.

As Alix Green comments in her forthcoming book History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government, we need to consider having history, and consequently, historians, working on the inside of the policy making process. In other words, having history support policy development as it is actually happening, instead of just providing historical perspective for policy makers’ consideration. Green argues that our historical methodology itself can be integrated into the policy making process creating a more nuanced policy analysis.  In my policy experience, this is the only way history can effectively influence policy outcomes.

We, with our “Historian’s toolkit”, can do far more than inform policy makers on competing historical perspectives: we can challenge the underlying assumptions of policy questions; we can provide institutional and policy specific histories; we can work with statisticians, social scientists and economists to fill the historical gaps in their analysis; we can review the actual final drafts of policy documents to ensure accuracy; and we can participate in the evaluation process and compare current and historic results. We can do all these things - but only if we are willing to be part of the process itself, instead of just telling policy makers that “history matters”.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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