Learning from our past

Last year, we held a small event here on administrative history.  It has resulted in a special issue of a journal, the International Journal of Public Administration, with another to come.  It also led to the invitation to the United Nations – don’t ask me why.  So, could the second event maintain that momentum?  It was held at the end of last week and, I think, the answer is yes.

I have been referring to Life on Mars and the continuing echoes from the 1970s to be heard in contemporary debates.  I think we would do well to look back further for some inspiration.  That is not to say that the past was better than the present.  Not am I suggesting that there are some similar experiences to be found in our past.  Rather, I find the discussions useful in that they put some things in perspective.  The papers we heard included: a discussion of the use of clay tablets in Ur in ancient Mesopotamia; the development of the Indian Civil Service from a commercial venture through to independence; and the use of stories as advice to rulers and their senior officials.  None have direct value as sources of inspiration for those confronting the challenge of reducing costs etc.  But they do remind us that the state we now know is a recent and, in historical perspective, temporary form of rule.  Those offering alternatives, such as Brendan Barber, might do well to reflect on the fact that the welfare state is only about 60 years old (or 130 if we stretch it back to Bismarck).  Yet we tend to talk of it as if it should always exist.  “Defend the welfare state” is the often heard cry.  Instead, we might ask whether there is anything in our past that helps us think more clearly about where we are to go next?

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