Evidence and Consultations

History as a resource for the future: building Civil Service skills

H&P submitted written evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into civil service skills. Below you can read the submission by H&P Director Dr Lucy Delap, Co-founder Professor Simon Szreter, and Public Affairs Manager Fiona Holland . The inquiry considered the skills and capabilities the civil service needs to ensure good governance for both current and future governments. After H&P’s written submission, Professor Szreter gave oral evidence on 28 October. You can listen to his evidence here: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16254 

Information about the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry can be found here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-administration-select-committee/news/civil-service-skills-evidence/



History & Policy (H&P) was founded 12 years ago to bring the latest historical research and its policy implications to the attention of civil servants, Parliamentarians and civil society in order, ultimately, to improve public policy. The founders, historians from Cambridge and London Universities, saw history being ignored, forgotten or misunderstood by policy makers and shapers, with deleterious consequences for society.

H&P welcomes the Public Administration Select Committee's inquiry into the state of skills and capabilities in the Civil Service, and its willingness to consult widely over how best to support training and skill development, in order to ensure good governance.

Why H&P is submitting evidence

H&P is submitting evidence because we believe in the importance and usefulness of historical research to public-policy decision makers. Our experience organising seminars and workshops in many government departments indicates an appetite for history, an understanding of its value for policy making – and a gap in the provision of historical training, resources and opportunities to gain greater historical knowledge that could be usefully applied to policy.  

A unique collaboration between King's College London and Cambridge University, H&P is a vibrant voluntary network of 500 historians at universities across the UK. But with limited resources, we can only fulfil part of the needs in the Civil Service highlighted above.

This submission relates to questions 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8, drawing on our experiences and feedback from more than 28 H&P events since 2010 in seven government departments, as well as the Airports Commission, Cabinet Office, No. 10 Downing Street, and a forthcoming event for Civil Service Learning. These events attract audiences of between 30 and 100 civil servants.

Q2. How information about existing skills and capabilities - and consequently any gaps - is captured, shared and acted upon across Whitehall

The evolution of H&P's programme of events in government is suggestive of how good practice circulates in Whitehall. The Department for Education (DfE) hosted the first H&P historical seminar series in the department in 2011-12.  The value of these events was evident in the response of senior civil servants convening the series. Speaking at a policy seminar at King's College London to reflect on H&P's offering to civil servants, DfE's Director of Policy for Children and Young People, Tom Jeffery, said:

We launched on an experimental basis a series of seminars – large meetings where historians come along and talk about their subject. We have done that over two winters now, 9 or 10 seminars, and they have been very successful. We have garnered feedback from those who have been part of it, and they have spoken very well of the experience and the contextual understanding the events have begun to give us.

Senior figures at HMT borrowed the format, and have sponsored two series of events aimed at giving the broader historical context to the policy challenges of today and a better understanding the usefulness of historian's skills for policy makers. Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson said at the H&P Policy Seminar in May 2013:

One of the points I make to young policy officials is that they need to develop expertise in their area using the available evidence base. And I regard history as a central plank of that because the ultimate evidence goes back in time through history.

Head of Budget Project Management and Presentation at HMT, Rachel King, who convenes the H&P series, said:

Feedback from civil servants who have participated in our [H&P] events to date is very positive about the value a historical perspective can bring to policy challenges we face today.

We want to ensure that the research shared in seminars is captured and used more widely in HM Treasury, and that we create opportunities for civil servants to collaborate more closely with historians in relevant fields.

Following the H&P policy seminar and discussions about how to make events more useful for civil servants, we devised with Rachel King a more interactive workshop. This was trialled using the controversy over the third London airport in the 1970s. The workshop encouraged critical source analysis among participants who examined official documents, Prime Ministerial memos, press coverage and public enquiry reports, and then put themselves in the shoes of different departments to prepare advice. Feedback from the 15 invited senior civil servants was excellent and elicited a request for a rerun by the Airports Commission. Among the feedback:

I just wanted to drop you a line to say how much I enjoyed today’s session. It was really fascinating, helpful in my own work – and run in a very engaging fashion. I really enjoyed adopting the perspective of a different department, which I think is a great technique. It took me back to CSSB.

In similar fashion, the H&P Home Office seminar series (currently not public) was inspired by our HMT programme, and has in turn sparked interest from Civil Service Learning (CSL).  H&P has been invited to run a seminar as part of CSL’s collaborative events programme, and we welcome this initial step. 

However, the history of government and policy making should be a more sustained component of CSL programme, as we believe it cannot be served by a single exemplary workshop.

While H&P welcomes the evident willingness to learn from good practice in other departments, this is admittedly ad hoc and based in good part on the enthusiasm of individuals in the civil service and their interest in history. There is no systematic means of publicising and sharing such initiatives, and no established Whitehall-wide mechanism for passing knowledge exchange practices to successors. 

As Richard Bartholomew, former Chief Research Officer at DfE, said:

It would be good to discuss what more we can do to bring together all the seminar materials and background papers produced so far as well as what we have learned about what works engaging policy makers with history.

Q4. The impact of the abolition of the National School for Government and how well its replacement, Civil Service Learning, is in addressing skills and capabilities gaps.

Previous incarnations of civil service training showed how both substantive historical content, and how to search and analyse the archive, could enrich policy making. The National School for Government included core historical components. CSL has no equivalent history core, which we believe is storing up a major deficit in the toolbox of skills civil servants require for excellent policy making.

While there is an evident appetite for more historical resources in government, some civil servants are not confident in accessing historical materials, or do not perceive the relevance of historical context and analysis to their work.  The fast turnover of staff in some departments, and the intensity of the routine workload throughout Whitehall, risks reinventing policy solutions, and failing to use adequately the skills and knowledge of more experienced staff.

Historical research may be inaccessible due to the paywalls of academic journals and/or its presentation in language and formats that do match the needs of busy civil servants. H&P publishes peer-reviewed scholarship online in jargon- and footnote-free policy papers – www.historyandpolicy.org – in attempt to overcome this barrier.

The selection and navigation of primary sources (Cabinet Conclusions, past legislation, memos and press coverage, for example) may require specialist search resources and critical reading skills, which civil servants need training to develop. Further, some departments have a poor track record in curating the documentary archive of their work, making it difficult to access documents.

As a result, civil servants are more likely to research international comparisons than to consider the past and think historically. This represents a major resource and skills deficit, which senior policy makers are keen to remedy. As Rachel King, noted:

When looking comparatively there is a tendency certainly in the Treasury for policy officials to look at international evidence, rather than looking at historical evidence. One thing that we definitely got out of the [H&P] series is building a sort of wider awareness and encouraging officials to think about historical evidence as part of a range of sources available to them.

All of H&P’s work in government to date has been based on goodwill - a desire by civic-minded historians to see relevant research feed into today's policy debates. H&P is an unusual initiative of 500+ historians who volunteer their time to write policy papers and speak to civil servants. Cambridge University and King's College London underwrite some of the core costs: an academic director, a public affairs manager and a digital communications officer, who together provide training for historians wanting to engage with policy makers, facilitate events series in government as well as public events, and manage the extensive online publications programme.

While H&P is happy to develop the efficacy of its services to civil servants, there are of course limits to how much can be done on a pro-bono basis. Further, we believe historical skills training is too important for good policy making for it to be provided only on an ad-hoc and pro-bono basis. Therefore we believe it should be part of core training, commissioned and paid for in the same way as other training needs are fulfilled.  

Q5. The importance of 'corporate memory' in the delivery of good governance

Many civil Servants are well aware of the need to think back in time, and of the frequent recurrence of similar policy problems facing different eras. Lord Butler, the former Head of the Home Civil Service, has recently stressed:

The relevance and value of historical knowledge to those who have to take major decisions in government …History never repeats itself exactly. There are always new currents flowing and new influences at work. But policy makers need to be aware of history.

Historians can provide case studies that shed light on previous incarnations of contemporary problems; they can set policy issues within their larger context and challenge the lazy or mythical interpretations of historical events that often predominate in government.

It is also the case that the kinds of skills used by historians are valuable for good governance. The ability to summarise evidence, assess potential bias, see the big picture, account for change over time and remain provisional in one's conclusions are all essential to making good decisions. History provides a key training ground for developing the critical and rigorous analytic skills that civil servants require. 

Lord Butler, who chaired H&P's Policy Seminar, has argued for a historical adviser in every government department. Speaking at this event, Tom Jeffery discussed the value of a historical understanding:  

…it is more about the richness of understanding than the calculus…it would be a good thing if a department developed that sense of understanding through more seminars, different formats of engagement with historians, wider reading lists, which you constantly developed, and you develop an expectation on the part of civil servants on all sorts of levels that they come at their problem bringing with them that richness of understanding.

Q6. Examples of good practice in identifying and promoting essential skills and capabilities within the Civil Service and elsewhere

H&P's innovative workshop format, trialled in HMT, has already been repeated in the Airports Commission and there are plans, if resources are available, to run similar interactive events in the CSL and more in HMT. Rachel King's interview about the workshop format is available here: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/workshops

H&P has proposed a History@Whitehall forum to bring civil servants across Whitehall into dialogue with historians in order to create effective linkages between the academic and policy worlds.

Q8. The importance of leadership and employee engagement in promoting and sustaining skills and capabilities

In each department where H&P has run events, there has been a senior civil servant who believes in the value of history to policy making. HMT's Sir Nicholas Macpherson has made public his view that historical thinking is an essential skill. Through attending and chairing our events, blogging via the HMT intranet and encouraging staff to bring historical contextualisation to their work, he has helped reduce the historical skills deficit in the Treasury. The activities of H&P in government has largely been made possible by the personal enthusiasm and leadership of individuals at the level of permanent secretary and director general, as well as the commitment of other senior civil servants such as Rachel King and Richard Bartholomew. We would like to see this work made more systematic and broadly available across Whitehall.

Conclusions and proposals

The role of historical analysis in shaping, reviewing and assessing policy making has long been appreciated by civil servants at all levels. While few departments now have Historical Sections, many still have traditions of historical societies, departmental libraries, commissioned official histories and other resources.  Building on these resources and integrating them with the policy- making process requires funded, sustained bridge building with the community of policy-minded historians, and attention to archiving practices within departments. 

There is evident enthusiasm for historical thinking amongst civil servants - H&P events in government have without fail attracted large audiences and enthusiastic feedback. However, there is still a widespread sense of the loss of corporate memory within many departments, and the downgrading of historical understanding in a resolutely future-oriented political environment.

This should be addressed through the systematic provision of training,

programmes of seminars/workshops in government (not only in London), and short secondments in the academy and in government respectively, for civil servants and historians.

We recommend the inclusion of historical components in the core training provision for all new entrants to the Civil Service as a key contribution to professionalising the policy-making process.


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About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

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