How do ministers know what policies have been tried before? Why do certain policy challenges keep appearing on the political agenda? How are historical insights injected into debates concerning ‘what works? How do we draw down on collective memory and avoid reinventing the wheel? How can historians play a larger role in supporting and informing contemporary policymaking?
A new pilot project has just been launched which seeks to explore these issues. Funded by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, the ‘Lessons from History’ project has as its focus the papers of former Home Secretary, David Blunkett (Baron Blunkett of Brightside and Hillsborough in the City of Sheffield) who in 2015 donated his personal papers to the University of Sheffield. These comprise over 260 boxes of material stretching from the 1940s to the present day.
This 6-month project, which is jointly led by Professor Matthew Flinders at the University of Sheffield and Professor Philip Murphy at the Institute of Historical Research,
- explores how contemporary policymakers can learn from history.
- is designed to showcase the policy relevance of the arts and humanities and is a key part of the wider SHAPE )agenda.
- is a collaboration between the History and Policy Network based at the Institute of Historical Research and the Blunkett Archives based at the University of Sheffield, with the support of the Universities Policy Engagement Network and British Academy.
- will develop a ‘proof of concept’ case study around sentencing policy, using the Blunkett papers to create a set of educational and training materials in a process of dialogue with current and former policy-makers.
- aims to prepare the ground for a more ambitious national project drawing on private political papers deposited across the UK.
The ‘Lessons from History’ project is focused on building boundary-spanning research infrastructure at the intersection of history (broadly defined) and contemporary policymaking. As the 2015 report by the Institute for Government demonstrated, history has huge potential for informing contemporary policy making and through this delivering better government and more effective policies. But that potential is currently not realised due to the existence of several barriers and blockages.