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

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 from the Universities of Queensland, Cambridge and New South Wales. Professor Lovell explained how the study analyses data on civil service turnover in the respective countries. As part of this, civil servants are asked about institutional memory and organisational performance and case studies focused on different organisations such as energy in Australia and the UK Treasury are explored.

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. An important distinction was made between the impact of institutional memory loss on less mature versus more mature organisations and it was explained that it is the latter that tend to do better at 'lessons learned' exercises. Developments in the machinery of government in all of the countries mean that new organisations and new functions appear frequently. When departments merge to form new entities, or when the function of a department alters, the overriding legacy and set of organisational values that govern the department are significant.

Given the turnover amongst civil servants, departments that rely on locally engaged staff often find that they can become the source for institutional memory as they tend to stay within the organisation for a much longer period. Professor Lovell explained that the overarching organisational culture helps set what is valued within an organisation – moving on or staying put. There is, however, 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 the development of institutional memory. For example, organisations may have dedicated functions to support internal or external enquiries as part of scrutiny processes, this is the case in policing. In other organisations, record keeping serves important audit and regulatory purposes.

Finally, Professor Lovell left the audiecne with an important question: whose memory are we talking about? Which voices and recollections are those which endure in organisational cultures and 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