Is institutional memory in decline?

21 December 2021


Is institutional memory in decline?

Reported by Nick Cosstick, Policy Researcher at CSaP

‘Institutional memory’ refers to information repositories within institutions. It is commonly held that institutional memory is in decline and that this has entirely negative consequences. Recent research has challenged this view as lacking nuance.

On 8 December 2021, the Centre for Science and Policy’s Policy Fellow seminar series hosted Professor Dennis Grube, Co-Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and Professor of Politics and Public Policy at POLIS. His talk concerned the characterisation, and supposed decline, of ‘institutional memory’.

What is ‘institutional memory’?

A foundational issue in Grube’s research concerns the definition of ‘institutional memory’. He pointed out that the functional role institutional memory is supposed to play in government is clear. It is supposed to act as an information repository which enables the business of government to carry on across succeeding administrations. However, Grube noted that people have differing conceptions of the precise meaning of ‘institutional memory’.

Grube argued that much of the academic literature has tended to conceptualise institutional memory as “a series of storage sites”. A particularly influential ‘storage site’ account came from the late Christopher Pollitt. Pollitt’s account lists four storage sites for organisational memory. Firstly, the experience and knowledge of the present members of staff. Secondly, the institution’s filing systems––both electronic and paper-based. Thirdly, the institution’s organisational routines and standard operating procedures. Finally, the norms and values inherent in the institution’s culture.

The four-factor account of the decline of institutional memory

Grube pointed out that institutional memory is supposed to be in decline due to several factors. In their recent book, Institutional Memory as Storytelling, Jack Corbett, Grube, Heather Lovell, and Rodney James Scott compiled the four factors posited across Pollitt’s work. Firstly, the civil service’s high staff turnover. Secondly, its constantly changing IT and data management systems. Thirdly, its regular organisational restructuring. Finally, its rewarding of management skills over the ability to hold, and recall, knowledge. Grube acknowledged the force of some of these factors. For example, the Institute for Government’s report Moving On: The costs of high staff turnover in the civil service shows the proportion of senior civil servants who left their respective departments during 2016-2017 ranges from 10-45% (depending on the department in question).

Despite this, Grube argued that there is a big problem with Pollitt’s four-factor account of the decline in institutional memory: it suggests that that the ideal solution would be to “turn back time” to the age in which these factors were not in play. However, he is “not sure that that age ever existed; that’s a mythical age”. For example, as far back as 1968, the Fulton Report named high staff turnover as a problem faced by the civil service.

Institutional memory as storytelling

Grube argued that progress cannot be stopped. For example, we cannot expect up-and-coming civil servants to delay career advancement just to become repositories for institutional memory. Therefore, accounts of institutional memory need to map out its form and role in the modern civil service. For Grube––and his co-authors on Institutional Memory as Storytelling––this means giving up the view that institutional memory is a “static”, “objective record” held in a storage site. Rather, he believes that it is “a series of shared experiences, of stories, of traditions that are culturally transmitted”. The large number of third-party actors involved in government means that institutional memory is also now dispersed across a much broader network.

Studying the effects of changing institutional memory

Grube finished by outlining his research group’s new project, funded by the Australian Research Council: a comparative study of institutional memory in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and (hopefully) Canada. Their central research question is: “how do changes in institutional memory affect policy processes, and what can we do about it”? He admitted that––for the time being––they “don’t really know what happens when institutional memory changes in government”. Furthermore, they are unsure of the mechanisms by which institutional memory is lost, and how to fix any unwanted impacts of such loss. Grube also outlined his intuition that “losing institutional memory is not necessarily all bad. Memories can constrain, as well as enable. And creative forgetting may allow [for] innovation”. Finally, he cautioned that “memory is not the same thing as learning”, so we need a conceptualisation of institutional memory which can be used to learn from past mistakes.

Image Credit: Aron Van de Pol on Unsplash

Nick Cosstick

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Professor Dennis Grube

Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge