Government departments urged to appoint chief historical advisers

Written by Beckie Smith on 8 January 2019 in News
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"There is now a much greater turnover in government departments. If we don’t have people who learn these corporate lessons, we will make the same mistakes," warns British Academy chief

Newspapers from 1973, the year Britain joined the EU. Photo: Paul Townsend

The head of the British Academy has become the latest expert to urge the government to appoint a chief historical adviser to each of its departments to protect institutional memory.

Alun Evans, chief executive at the British Academy, has said that just as each department is equipped with a chief scientific adviser who is responsible for providing scientific input to support policy and decision-making, so too should they have civil servant responsible for providing historical advice.

“If you want to understand the big question of the day, there’s a strong case for every government department to have a source of historical advice, a chief historical adviser,” he told The Times.


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“One of the problems with government departments at the moment is the lack of institutional memory. Also, advice to ministers used to be in the form of written notes that were archived — so much is done electronically now or by mobile phone. And there are fewer civil servants who are in the job for a long time. Too often people don’t think about how much they can learn from the past.”

A lack of institutional memory is a concern in government because of the high rate of staff turnover across the civil service.

Last September, the Institute for Government warned that staff churn at the Treasury could affect decision-making and even hinder this year’s Spending Review.

And figures released under Freedom of Information legislation in the same month revealed just over half (53%) of staff at the Department for Exiting the European Union had quit the department since it was established in July 2016.

Brexit only makes the need to preserve institutional memory more pressing, according to Evans.

“In a post-Brexit world, we will really need people who have worked in departments for, for example, 20 years. It’s about using history to understand the present,” he said.

Evans noted that archivists and librarians, who often have a long institutional memory, were often the first to lose their jobs when budget cuts bite. He said the British Academy was working with some departments to provide historical input, having been invited to do so by former cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood.

He made the comments following a seminar at the academy for 40 Treasury employees, after discovering that none of them had been civil servants during the 2008 financial crisis.

“It was the biggest financial disaster of our time. There is now a much greater turnover in government departments. If we don’t have people who learn these corporate lessons, we will make the same mistakes,” he said.

Evans’ comments echo a call by Lord Robin Butler five years ago. Writing for CSW in March 2013, Butler said it was “deeply regrettable” that most departments had disbanded their historical sections due to budgetary pressures.

“I believe that each department should appoint a historical adviser, not to advise on the historical background to every problem which a department has to manage – no single person could have the expertise to do that – but to put the policy-makers in contact with a source of such expertise,” he wrote.

Historical experts including noted historian Sir David Cannadine and the Institute for Government’s Catherine Haddon rallied behind the call.

Patrick Salmon, chief historian at the Foreign Office, told CSW at the time that “people should have known more about the complexities of Iraq – Tony Blair said that recently himself – and they should have known more about Afghanistan.”

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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