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New contemporary history of Whitehall study begins

Date: 28/10/2013

Many of the debates about Whitehall's future have their origins in the past. The central Civil Service (Whitehall) has undergone vast changes since 1979. People, tools and technology, jobs and public profile are all very different to three decades ago, but how different? Whitehall is a central part of government, but its recent history is not as well understood as it should be.

A unique new project will investigate the recent history of Whitehall during the 1979-2010 period from the perspectives of those within it and close to it. ‘The Contemporary History of Whitehall’ initiative funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will be undertaken through a partnership between the Institute for Government and King's College London and will last three years. It will chart the transformations in the corridors of power over the last 30 years, using the lessons of Whitehall's past to inform its future.

The research team will comprise Dr Catherine Haddon, an Institute for Government Fellow, with Professor Ken Young and a post-doctoral researcher both from King's College London.

It will look at archives, academic studies, government documents, memoirs and biographies to examine the period. At its core will be a large-scale interview programme, witness seminars and public events.

The project will explore and analyse different aspects of Whitehall, looking at such themes as:

  • Successes and failures – Whitehall has seen many ups and downs, its public failures often better known than its private successes. But what do they tell us about its effectiveness? How has Whitehall performed in its policy work, in crisis management and as support to ministers during some of the defining moments of UK political history?
  • Behavioural and cultural trends – The background, age, gender and ethnicity of its workforce has changed Whitehall over the period, but how far? Has it made a difference to the culture of working in Whitehall, not just at the top but for those starting out? It will also consider how different Whitehall is depending on where you work.  What is the ethos and feel of different departments?
  • Response to changes in society – Whitehall’s role should reflect how government engages with society and with the rest of the world. But how reactive has it been? Have changes to the role of the state, its relationship with Europe, or moving from the Cold War to a post-9/11 world affected the way Whitehall works and what it delivers for ministers?
  • Role in government and relationship with politicians – Current reform debates focus again on what Whitehall is for, and its strengths and weaknesses. Familiar themes recently under discussion, including accountability and appointments, policy delivery and efficiency, echo throughout this period. But how far has the past shaped today’s discussions and can it inform them?

The project will use workshops, public events and social media to convey its learning. It will bring together academic researchers and former and current practitioners to improve institutional memory within Whitehall. It will bring an historical perspective to bear on current debates around the changing shape of the UK Civil Service and it will enhance our understanding of this core dimension of UK central government.

Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, said:

The Contemporary History of Whitehall project — supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council – represents an important extension to our understanding of and engagement with government. Dr Catherine Haddon, a Fellow of the Institute, has already produced valuable work on the topic and the combination of academic scholarship and practical insights that this partnership with AHRC and King’s College London provides will be extremely valuable. It will link past and present practitioners from both politics and the civil service in looking at the main events affecting Whitehall over the past 30 years.

Professor Rick Rylance, the Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said:

The Contemporary History of Whitehall project is the next step in a successful and productive partnership between the Institute for Government and the AHRC.  This work will be of great importance in enabling the Civil Service to learn from its own history to inform its future. It will assist researchers, policy makers, educationalists and the general public to gain deeper understanding of government processes from a historical perspective. Understanding and learning from the past is at the heart of what we in the arts and humanities are about.

Professor Denise Lievesley, Head of the School of Social Science and Public Policy at Kings College London, said:

The award of an AHRC grant for this work of important contemporary history is recognition of the strengths of King's College London in this area. Focusing on a period of considerable social and political turbulence, the project will shed light on Whitehall's role in formulating and implementing policies and in monitoring their outcomes. Of particular interest will be the project's analysis of successes and failures as a pointer to lessons for the future. We welcome our partnership with the Institute for Government and the prospect of a long and fruitful relationship.

For further information, please contact: Danielle Moore-Chick, AHRC: 01793 416021 d.moore-chick@ahrc.ac.uk

Notes for Editors

  • The Institute for Government, an independent charity with cross-party governance, works closely with senior civil servants and politicians, undertaking research and providing development opportunities to promote government effectiveness and improve policy making.
  • Updates on the project will be announced on our website (insert Links to project pages on websites of IfG, KCL and AHRC)
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. www.ahrc.ac.uk
  • King's College London is the fourth oldest university in England. It was established in 1829 by King George IV and the Duke of Wellington. The College is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2013-14 QS international world rankings). It is a multi-faculty research-led institution with five London campuses, over 25,000 students and 6,500 staff.; King's offers an intellectually rigorous environment supported by welcoming and caring traditions, and its mission is to serve society both in the UK and abroad. As part of its mission to serve society the College is closely involved with the policy making community nationally and internationally.
  • Dr Catherine Haddon is the Institute for Government's resident historian. She joined the Institute in November 2008 from academia. She leads the Institute's work on the history of Whitehall, on managing changes of government and on wider historical and constitutional topics. She is a Visiting Fellow at King's College London.
  • Professor Ken Young is Professor of Public Policy at King's College London. He has researched and published for many years in the fields of national and local politics and urban government. His present work is in the politics of defence and is working on aspects of Anglo-American defence relations and foreign policy.


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