by Fiona Holland, H&P Public Affairs Manager
History & Policy’s role in Agents of Future Promise is based on both tried and tested mechanisms and an experimental approach. Following H&P’s extensive experience connecting historians’ with policy makers and shapers, we will seek out civil servants, NGO practitioners and Parliamentarians for whom the project findings could be relevant and useful.
We will also experiment. It is rare for H&P to be involved from the outset of a research project and this partnership provides an opportunity to shape its presentation in ways that could appeal to a broad audience. This involves breaking down perceived and real barriers between academia, policy communities and the wider public. A key barrier or obstacle is language and word count. So H&P spends time working with historians to make their research accessible and succinct. The aim is to enable a meaningful two-way exchange so that audiences understand scholarly research and why it could be relevant and helpful today; and so that academics are aware of the needs and interests, in particular, of policy makers and shapers.
Another barrier to disseminating research and engaging with varied audiences is timing. In recent times academics have wanted (and/or been galvanised by funders) to reach out – but often only at the end of projects, after the research has been completed. This approach misses a crucial opportunity to understand the policy problems civil servants (for example) face and how academic research could assist – not by coming up with simplistic ‘solutions’ but conveying how and why events happened, decisions were made, and policies evolved in the past. Academics are thus equipped to reflect on the implications of their findings for important issues today.
Perhaps a more fundamental or underlying obstacle to engagement is academic attitudes. In the past, and to a certain extent today, some scholars may be uneasy about being driven or too focused on trying to answer today’s social, economic or political problems. Instead they may see their role as purely concerned with academic research for its own ends – to increase the body of knowledge in the world. It is for others to recognise the usefulness of that new research and apply or implement it in the ‘real world.’ Increasingly, the distinction between these two approaches is blurred, with ‘ivory towers’ a stereotype of the past and academics very much part of and engaging in society. In this way they have the potential to impact on policy decisions and participate in public debates.
H&P uses ‘policy makers and shapers’ intentionally – to encompass the range of people and influences that bear on the policy-making process, which is less smooth and linear and more a complicated web of factors, actors and, of course, politics. Thus during Agents of Future Promise we will work with civil society, including the NGO project partners, Save the Children and War Child, and seek other connections with, for example, Let Toys be Toys, the Museum of Childhood and Mumsnet. We also aim to talk to Parliamentarians.
Identifying suitable target audiences is important. Beyond the obvious focus of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, we need to understand their current concerns and needs. Here lie the opportunities for historians keen to share their research with the aim, ultimately, of improving public policy.
How research findings are presented is important (and can be a particular challenge for historians in contrast to other academic disciplines). Busy civil servants and NGO practitioners do not have time for lengthy, scholarly journal articles or book chapters.
Research findings for such audiences are best presented in bulleted form on one sheet of A4, written in lay language, without footnotes. The other A4 side could provide some context, why the research findings matter today, and sources of more information – for example, H&P policy papers, which at 4000 words maximum (no footnotes or references), seek to bridge the divide between journal articles and audiences wanting to understand the policy implications of historical research.
If the research is presented in person, we advise historians to use Powerpoint, with bullet-pointed findings and ideally some illustrations, to help the audience grasp key messages immediately and – let’s be honest – brighten up a lunchtime seminar in Whitehall.
How might the research from Agents of Future Promise help policy makers and shapers today? Further into the research we will have concrete findings; for now the following are good possibilities:
• Revealing how and why adults used children in the past to imagine and promote their ideas of the future can throw light on the ideological uses of children today.
• Understanding the consequences of this process for children then and now could enhance knowledge of children’s welfare and wellbeing today.
• Seeing to what extent children were passive recipients or active participants in past societies could inform understanding of their role, or agency, today. As, for example, when those aged 16 were given the vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum and, if Labour gets into power, will be able to vote in general elections.