Institutional Memory in the Civil Service

26 October 2023

Institutional Memory in the Civil Service

Reported by Dr Charlotte Sausman, Associate Director, Policy Fellowships at Centre for Science and Policy

On 18 October 2023, Professor Heather Lovell, Professor of Energy and Society at the University of Tasmania, presented her current research programme at the first online seminar for CSaP Policy Fellows in the new academic year, as part of our series, ‘Public Policy and Practice: challenges and opportunities’.

Professor Lovell is currently undertaking a comparative study of the UK, Australia and New Zealand with colleagues, Associate Professor Alastair Stark, University of Queensland, Professor Jack Corbett, Monash University, Professor Dennis Grube, University of Cambridge and Professor Rodney Scott, University of New South Wales.

Professor Lovell took us through the different aspects of the study which involves analysing data on civil service turnover in the respective countries, asking civil servants about institutional memory and organisational performance as well as case studies focused on different organisations such as energy in Australia and the UK Treasury.

Most – but not all – analysis regards institutional memory loss as a bad thing. However, prevailing attitudes around the benefits of moving around to enhance career progression encourages high turnover. Questions were asked around the varying impact of institutional memory loss on less mature versus more mature organisations, and it was the latter that was felt to do better at lessons learned exercises. Machinery of government changes in all countries mean that new organisations and new functions frequently emerge. When departments merge, move or change function, it is important which is the prevailing legacy and set of organisational values that emerges. Given the turnover amongst civil servants, departments which also rely on locally engaged staff find that they can become the source for institutional memory as they tend to stay in the organisation for a much longer time. Expanding on organisational culture, it becomes important as to what is valued within an organisation – moving or staying? There is a need for more analysis of turnover data across organisations to delve deeper into these effects.

In some sectors, there are external drivers which contribute to institutional memory. For example, organisations may have dedicated functions to support internal or external enquiries as part of scrutiny processes, this is the case for example in policing. In other organisations, record keeping serves important audit and regulatory purposes.

Finally, whose memory are we talking about? Which voices and recollections are those which endure in organisational culture? Is institutional memory and the creation of organisational narratives a counterpoint to the application of evidence – predominantly scientific and expert evidence – in the creation and evaluation of new policies? How are these countervailing processes both successfully applied in the analysis, implementation and review of public policy processes?

Image by Parrish Freeman - Unsplash

Dr Charlotte Sausman

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge