Time travel in Whitehall: Institutional amnesia and learning lessons from history

Closing the gap between history and policy is a critical concern with relevance to contemporary debates about immigration, sentencing policy, childcare, to mention just a few
A fanciful idea? Dr Who's Tardis appeared in Parliament square in August 2014. Photo: amer ghazzal/Alamy Live News

The idea of Dr Who’s Tardis suddenly appearing on the green in Parliament Square – teleported from some far-away galaxy and different time or dimension – might, at first glance, appear ridiculously far-fetched. The idea that the time machine and spaceship might have arrived with the sole intention of helping to solve a policy problem that has been recognised but remained unsolved for decades seems even more fanciful. Add to this a clear link into the world of academe and debates about the role of university researchers and the story becomes even more perplexing.  

The policy problem is very simple: policymaking in Whitehall is bound by a form of structural amnesia, which makes it very hard, if not impossible, for today’s politicians and policy-makers to learn lessons from the past. The reasons for this are complex and involve a mixture of laws and conventions, poor record keeping and high levels of "churn" within the corridors of power that could almost have been designed to destroy institutional memory.  

This is not a new problem. Lord Peter Hennessy’s magisterial book Whitehall provides an authoritative account of the challenge. More recently, the work of the Public Administration Select Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Bernard Jenkin, repeatedly shone a spotlight on the issue; and the All Change report of 2017 by Emma Norris and Robert Adam provided a forensic analysis of why British government has a tendency to recreate policies and an inability to learn from the past. This predilection for the "endless reinventing of wheels" – as one former Treasury permanent secretary put it – wastes money, stymies innovation, explains policy failures and contributes to broader public disillusionment and democratic disaffection. What makes this situation even more puzzling is that  we also know from the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Making History Work seminar series that historical insights have much to offer contemporary policymakers.   

"This predilection for the 'endless reinventing of wheels' wastes money, stymies innovation, explains policy failures and contributes to broader public disillusionment and democratic disaffection"

Closing the gap between history and policy is therefore a critical concern with relevance to contemporary debates about immigration, sentencing policy, childcare, to mention just a few.  

A Tardis parked at the top of Whitehall – a convenient place for ministers and their officials to visit as they head into parliament – could work wonders using its time-travelling talents to reveal lessons from the past. 

Without such technology, however, there is an urgent need to fashion a more prosaic solution which explains why the Lessons from History project has just been launched as a collaboration between the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study and the David Blunkett Archives at the University of Sheffield, with the support of the British Academy, the Universities Policy Engagement Network and History & Policy.  

Three elements distinguish this project from previous studies.  

First and foremost it is a solution-oriented perspective. The barriers and blockages to injecting historical insight into contemporary policymaking are well known. The focus of this project is removing them through a more explicit emphasis not on what academic researchers can provide but what policymakers need (and when they need it, how it should be presented, when insights are most useful, where are the effective "docking points", etc.). The project therefore adopts a fresh and novel approach to stimulating supply and shaping demand through a focus on connective and catalysing structures.  

Secondly, most of the debate about institutional memory and amnesia in Whitehall tends to focus on the use of official records and departmental libraries. These are important but risk overlooking the massive insight and wisdom that exists within the private papers of former ministers. Although focused upon interviews, the Institute for Government’s brilliant Ministers Reflect series highlights the value of personal notes and reflections.  

Third and finally, the Lessons from History project will embrace an emphasis on co-design and co-production as it works with politicians and policymakers to understand what users of historical research actually need to be able to utilise research. The aim being to trial and test new ways of navigating the intersection between research and policy through a "proof-of-concept" approach that will use the Blunkett Archives as a case study.  

Reflecting on the project, Lord Blunkett – who is chairing its advisory council – said: "During my long career in politics, I have always been puzzled by two things. The first was the way in which the same policy dilemmas kept popping up on the agenda. The second was the paucity of historical evidence that policymakers seemed to have at their fingertips about what policy responses had been tried in the past and therefore ‘what worked’.

"The institutional memory in Whitehall is ridiculously short and this is exactly what this project will seek to address’."

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. Phillip Murphy is professor of British and Commonwealth history at the Institute for Historical Research, University of London, and the IHR's director of history and policy.  


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