Thoughts on Historians and Public Policy in the UK and Canada

22 07 2013

AS: Jim Clifford, one of the founders of the ActiveHistory.ca website, posted a lengthy reply to my recent post about Ian Mosby and the place of historians in the public sphere. I’m posting my reply here. 

Hi Jim,

ActiveHistory.ca is a great initiative. I didn’t realise it was inspired by History and Policy. You are right that’s quite different from H&P, which has several FTE employees. That’s not to say it doesn’t make a valuable contribution. I enjoy reading it.

You wrote that “I’m still interested in reviving the public policy goals of ActiveHistory.ca at some point in the future, but I think the History and Policy might take more funding that our site current operates on. History and Policy have staff members that can work to link historians with public policy makers and the media. There are a number of think tanks around Canada that might help us bridge our research with current policy issues, but we’d also need a critical mass of historians interested in this kind of work. Maybe Ian Mosby’s success, along with Sean Kheraj’s work on pipeline oil spills, will inspire others to think about how their research connects with current policy issues.”

You are right that this would take serious money. In translating History and Policy to the Canadian context, you would need to keep several things in mind.  Bilingualism is obviously one  important difference between Canada and the UK.  Federalism is another. History and Policy publishes on a vast range of topics, ranging from maternity care to water conservation to foreign policy. That’s because the UK is a unitary state and the MPs and journalists who have to think about local government one day have to think about Afghanistan the next. In Canada, we have two political classes, one federal, one provincial, that are interested in different sets of issues.

My suggestion is that you need to decide which level of government you are trying to serve or influence. Don’t try to publish papers on topics that are related to both federal (e.g., defence) and provincial jurisdiction (e.g., K-12 education), since people in provincial government won’t be interested in the defence stuff and people in Ottawa won’t care about daycare (Obviously there are some areas, such as agriculture, where jurisdictions overlap).

I would recommend focusing first on federal areas of jurisdiction, as there is likely to be more money for a website that is useful to federal policymakers. Of course, focusing on federal policy areas means that you have to have a symmetrically bilingual website, which will drive up your costs.

In starting out, you should assemble a board of directors that includes some really senior academics whose research interests mirror the main priority areas of the federal government.

One way of determining what these priority areas are is to do a word count of recent Throne Speeches.  Canadian Throne Speeches used to be about social policy, healthcare etc. Nowadays, they focus more on the nightwatchman functions of the state. See here. You might also look at a breakdown of what the federal government actually spends money on.

Another difference between Canada and the UK is that the UK is totally dominated by its capital, which the largest city, the base of all of the newspapers and TV stations, and the home of the stock exchange, etc. Many of the leaders in one field know each other.  In Canada, these functions are dispersed among several cities, which makes influencing policy a bit more difficult.   History and Policy is based smack in the centre of London and a short bus ride from “the Westminster Village.”

Moreover, the UK is still largely governed by a fraternity of graduates from just two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) where people form lifelong friendships and alliances.  That means there are lots of pre-existing linkages between academe, the civil service, the political class, the press, and so forth we [thankfully] don’t have in Canada, where leaders in these fields come a wider number of universities.  Canada’s more democratic social structure would make it harder for an organization  like History and Policy to influence policy there. You can have a look at short bios of all of the History and Policy staffers here.

Above all, ensure there is ideological and partisan balance in your board of directors. That way your budget will be stable regardless of which political party is in office. I also suggest that you have a mixture of academic historians and non-academics who are sympathetic to the application of history to public policy. The latter might include Hugh Segal, a Tory Senator, Sean Conway (an Ontario Liberal), Bill Graham (federal Liberal), and Chris Champion (Conservative, former Reformer). You should also ensure that the academic historians include a mixture of Canadianists and non-Canadianists.

If you want to contact me by email I can give some more specific advice and tell you a bit more about my abortive project.

Your wrote: “One more note, Histoire sociale/Social History has only committed to keeping Ian’s article open for 2 weeks from the date it was opened up. I sympathize with the serious fiscal constrains of academic publishing in Canada, but I really hope they decide to leave this article open permanently.”

Two whole weeks? Wow… /sarc.

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One response

22 07 2013
Ian Milligan

Fascinating stuff, which I think really shows the complexity. This would require full-time, determined effort.. and a great deal of centralization.

FWIW, I tackled our evolution from a History and Policy model to a blogging model here: http://ianmilligan.ca/2012/10/31/public-history-and-the-university-opportunities-and-challenges/

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