“History repeats itself” – ex-Treasury boss Nick Macpherson on why institutional memory matters

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 30 September 2016 in Feature
Feature

While most departments closed their historical services many years ago, a few are building new ways to bring past expertise to their policy-making. Suzannah Brecknell speaks to key figures including former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson about Whitehall's renewed drive to learn the lessons of history

In December 1976, over nine hard-fought Cabinet meetings, ministers negotiated the heavy cuts in public spending required to secure a £2.3bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. Programmes from road building to regional development were cut to achieve the requisite £2.5bn reduction. Not all cuts were on a large scale, however.

 “The Treasury's one contribution to the IMF cuts,” says the department's recently retired permanent secretary Sir Nick Macpherson, “was to abolish its historical section.”

This may seem a fairly innocuous decision – few departments have historical services any more – but, as Macpherson notes: “The then-perm sec, Sir Douglas Wass, still deeply regrets taking that decision”.


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Like Wass, Macpherson (pictured below) has come to realise the value of a historical perspective, and in the last years of his time at the Treasury he helped to build a partnership that is restoring, albeit in a new mould, the Treasury's ability to scrutinise and learn from its past.

“The longer I worked in the civil service, the more conscious I became that history repeats itself,” Macpherson tells CSW, and the Treasury isn’t well-placed, institutionally, to understand these repetitions.

“The Treasury's own files often contain a lot of relevant information, but it's extraordinary how often officials tend to develop policy from first principles rather than going back and getting a deeper understanding of why we are where we are now, and what has informed the development of policy,” he says.

In part, this is due to the make-up of the Treasury’s workforce – relatively young officials, moving from post-to-post as they climb the career ladder. “There are huge benefits in having a young dynamic workforce,” says Macpherson. “But I recall when I was a young Treasury official in my mid-20s, even five years ago seemed like a long time.”

Yet it’s vital to understand the past as part of the policy-making process, he says. “That doesn't mean that history is the answer to everything. It's a contributing factor: it's always important to understand why you are where you are, and if you want to improve things you need to take that historical perspective into account.”


"Incredible resource"

Before 1976, officials seeking a historical perspective could draw on the expertise of in-house historians, or read one of the memos that those historians produced as they beavered away in the Treasury's archives.

The archives have remained, but without a historical service it was much harder for officials to make use of this resource. Now, a new group of people are using the archives to produce documents which can inform policy-making. But they aren't in-house historians – these are post-graduate students, and HMT policy officials, using the archives in a partnership set up with Kings College, London.

They include King’s PhD candidate Eleanor Hallam, researching her doctorate on the Treasury under Alistair Darling, from 2007-2010. Covering the organisational reactions to the global financial crisis, Hallam has access to documents which won’t be released to the National Archives for at least 11 years.

She won’t be allowed to quote the documents directly – that would open them up to FOI requests – but she is also interviewing officials and Darling himself as part of the work which will, in time, provide valuable insights for officals dealing with new crises.

Alongside Hallam, four Treasury officials have been scouring the archives for historical insights. These policy officials were writing essays as part of a course on the post-war history of the Treasury which they attended at King’s Policy Institute. This year, six more officials are taking the course, at which Macpherson lectures alongside course leader Dr Jon Davis and such former Treasury heavyweights as Ed Balls, Norman Lamont and Danny Alexander.

“It is going to be an incredible resource," Mario Pisani of the Treasury's Debt and Reserve Management team

Last year’s officials produced essays covering, for example, the advice given by officials during the 1993 exchange rate mechanism crisis, as well as work looking at how different crises have shaped the Treasury itself. Alongside this, master’s students from Kings are working in the archives to write pieces on the 1988 budget, and advice given on tax credits in the late 1990s.

These essays will become the Treasury’s property and don’t have to be published externally, so they can “can expose issues in a complete way” explains Mario Pisani, a deputy director in the Debt and Reserve Management team at the Treasury who has been closely involved with the King’s partnership.

“It is going to be an incredible resource,” he says. “The hope is that over time we can produce a new series a bit like the one that historical service were producing in 1970s.”

Macpherson believes this partnership has invigorated the records section of the Treasury. “People who work there feel that their work is valued more, they’ve responded to the wider interest by getting old papers from the National Archives at Kew,” he says. This does create extra work for the archivists, but Pisani adds, it also provides new resources for them to draw on.

“We’ve got a great archivist, Jan Booth, he’s amazing, and he's helping make this happen, but this is a great resource for him because it means that someone's looking at the 2007-2010 files now rather than in 15 years,” explains Pisani. “So a side benefit is that Eleanor is cataloguing what's in there, looking whether there's any gaps.” This kind of resource may prove especially valuable as official archivists start to tackle the challenges of an ever-growing store of digital documents.


"Swing of the pendulum"

The partnership between King’s and Treasury is not officially about restoring a historical service, of course – instead it ties into the department’s agenda of developing policy professionals and improving policy. “At the very basic level what the partnership aims to do is encourage engagement between people at both institutions,” says Pisani.

So alongside places on the course for Treasury officials and the access to Treasury archives for King’s Students, the two institutions run regular events such as History Labs examining a particular event from an institutional perspective, or a day-long conference brining officials and academics together to discuss the productivity challenge. These events count towards an individual’s development days, and, says Pisani, help people “escape from their immediate policy purview.”

“It’s allowing more people to get under the skin of these hallowed institutions" – Sir Nick Macpherson

But it does reflect, Macpherson, says a “wider swing of the pendulum,” back towards valuing history in policy-making. The Foreign Office revitalised its historical service in 2012, moving the historians out of a basement and into a newly refurbished library. Number 10 meanwhile has had a researcher in residence since last year (another King’s PHD candidate, Jack Brown, currently writing a book on the way successive prime ministers have used and developed the iconic buildings on Downing Street).

And this week, a batch of students and officials will begin a new course on the institutional history of Number 10 – the latest offering from King’s Ultra Contemporary History department, developed with Downing Street itself.

Macpherson is keen to see more of these partnerships develop, both with new academic institutions, and new departments across government: “It’s allowing more people to get under the skin of these hallowed institutions,” he says, “and ultimately to provide a wider source of material, which can inform policy-making.”

Author Display Name
Suzannah Brecknell
About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is CSW's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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Andrew Archer (not verified)

Submitted on 3 October, 2016 - 19:23
I'm not sure that history repeats itself in an exact sense, but it is certainly the case that past knowledge of policy development can - and indeed should be used to - inform future policy development. The Civil Service (along with many, many organisations to be fair) has, to date, never really cracked good institutional knowledge management, so this is a welcome initiative.

David Matthew (not verified)

Submitted on 3 October, 2016 - 23:36
Whilst Douglas Wass may have regretted the decision to axe the Treasury Historical Section they were a problem for Treasury officials who were trying to deal with a financial crisis (see the files at The National Archives) and often the historians got the wrong end of the stick as in the case of the National Land Fund which was incorrect from the opening paragraphs. Unfortunately Treasury only has three or four people in their archives section and the files have been outsourced to Iron Mountain, in my view some Treasury officials should spend a half-day at least at The National Archives and just meander through the records and find how history does indeed repeat itself, unfortunately.

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