Government and governance, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia

8 December 2021

Expanding the role of government historians would unlock a massive potential for improvement in the decision-making of Australia’s public service, Honae Cuffe writes.

History has been in the headlines in recent weeks with the announcement by former federal Education Minister Alan Tudge of a major review of Australia’s draft history curriculum.

Along with discussion about what students should learn about Australia’s past – with the minister saying he doesn’t want children to be taught “hatred of Australia” – the announcement has sparked broader consideration of the purpose of history and historical practice in public life.

One topic that has fallen by the wayside in the hubbub is ‘applied’ history. Applied history is when historical expertise and research practices are employed to contextualise present day challenges and deliver better decision-making.

Applied history is less interested in offering up approximate lessons from the past and more concerned with encouraging policymakers to incorporate historical consciousness into their work, because of the public value this can deliver.

The promise of applied history is reflected in the growing trend within academia towards producing research that addresses directly the challenges facing society and, in particular, policymakers.

Valuable as academic contributions are though, this historical consciousness must become an embedded specialist skill of Australia’s public servants.

With its tradition of critical inquiry and addressing societal challenges, applied history is particularly well suited to an organisation dedicated to serving the public. Of course, Australia already has historians within the public service, but these roles are limited, and tend to be found in defence and international relations – areas that are conspicuously tethered to national identity.

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This is especially true of the former. As many historians have observed, the Australian Defence Force occupies a unique position in the national psyche.

It only takes one look at the news on ANZAC Day, or to look at the bitter public debate surrounding the $500 million expansion of the Australian War Memorial, to appreciate the political sensitivity of this kind of history.

While publicly employed historians may have opportunities to consult organisational archives and provide Australia with important contextual knowledge, opportunities to contribute to contested issues or advise on contemporary problems are limited.

A potential remedy to this situation is expanding the role of government historians. This may take the form of a dedicated historian or history office for each government agency or, as a more radical a proposal, an Office of the Chief Historian – standing alongside existing and highly-regarded roles such as the Chief Scientist and Chief Economist – who would provide essential background information, identify precedents, and offer practical policy advice.

Public servants rely on institutional knowledge and best practice to make good decisions. In the face of concerns about avoidable error and weak institutional memory, the value of such an office is apparent.

There is also a role for government historians to teach courses, training public servants to have greater historical consciousness.

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Consider the organisational history of the public service – the post-Second World War years were a period of immense change for it, as the size and range of activities undertaken by the federal government grew rapidly.

Central to this was changing expectations of the public service, as the work of government became increasingly focused on the delivery of the services required to reorganise Australia’s economy and society following the war. Not surprisingly, this post-war reconstruction period also saw the increased professionalisation of the public service. Ad hoc arrangements in which academics were called on as advisors and administrators were replaced with formal graduate recruitment programs.

In no small way, these changes form the basis of the modern public service, and for today’s public servants, an appreciation of this institutional history offers lessons in the enduring challenges of public administration and policy-making.

Knowing this history would help them understand the challenges of navigating federalism, capacity-building, and managing public servant-minister relations.

Historical training could teach the public service core skills in historical inquiry, focusing on how to navigate organisational records and public servants’ ability to analyse and weigh the value of sources of evidence.

These specialist skills would help augment the mainstay skills of the public service, such as data analysis, stakeholder engagement, and information synthesis.

If the public service could match current knowledge with skills in critical inquiry and a dedication to serving the public, the whole government would see the benefits.

Above all, more government historians could unlock the enormous potential for a body of public servants who appreciate the origins and development of their own departments, their country, and the problems they face – making them better prepared to address them.

The author’s first book, The Genesis of Policy, was published by ANU Press in November 2021 and is available online.

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One Response

  1. Francesca Beddie says:

    Great to read of your work, Honae. How I’d love to see a Chief Historian appointed or at least greater attention to history in domestic portfolios. I’ve been going on about this for ages:

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