How the state forgets what doesn't work
This lament about the absence of institutional histories of State of Illinois departments and agencies owed to my frustration as a sort-of historian. On assignment, I frequently often found myself with questions of the sort that could only be answered by a tedious trip to the archives. Nothing will be done about writing such histories, at least not by the State of Illinois, of course; at the time of writing the state couldn’t even fully staff its own historical library, much less add historians to every major department and state-run institution.
“The history of the state’s parens patriae role toward children is strikingly circular,” wrote historian Joan Gittens. She offers several examples. The earliest solution to raising state-dependent children, for instance, was to settle them promptly into families, with little or no further intervention from the state; after a century of trying other approaches, the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 again favored simple familial care over state intervention. “And in the education of handicapped children,” she reminds us in a 1994 volume, “the pre-Civil War special schools’ goal of returning mentally and physically handicapped children to their communities as soon as possible finds an echo in the modem day commitment to deinstitutionalization and mainstreaming of handicapped children.” Education, corrections, utility regulation, energy policy—each is a realm in which old policies that failed are forever being mistaken for new ones with promise. One can come to a couple of conclusions while meditating on this recurring trip back to the future.
One is that there are only two basic state government solutions to each of the standard social ills and they are both wrong. Another is that the state keeps making the same mistakes because policymakers in state departments lack awareness of their organizations’ pasts.
In general, institutional memory in Illinois state government ranges from faint to amnesic. Narrative accounts of departmental history are as rare as revenue-rich budgets. Department is used loosely here to refer to any administrative subdivision of the executive branch; narratives include interpretive records of key policy debates and the results of administrative initiatives.
Would knowing the past help keep agencies from wasting time and money and avoid avoidable errors? Would it help frame and contextualize policy debates and proposals? And how would achieving informed perspective work?
An ongoing program of applied history about state government operations would be a new species of what has come to be called “public history.” As practiced in the United States, this still-green art includes history prepared for a public unused to complex fare. It is public historians who, increasingly, concoct museum exhibits, staff the more ambitious local historical societies and manage the archives of major business corporations. The larger aim of public history is, as one of the movement’s early leaders once put it, to apply the “scientific knowledge of history in the practical affairs of today.
Running state government is certainly a practical affair. But who might assemble this scientific knowledge? One nominee might be in-house historians—not archivists but proper, trained historians whose role would be to search, reflect upon and reveal the past to inform the present. Such scribes probably should not be regular department employees. Insulating state-paid historians from meddling by their masters is crucial.
Thucydides, it should be remembered, was able to write the first objective history—the History of the Peloponnesian War, a chronicle of conflict between Sparta and his native Athens—only because he had been exiled from Athens. His successors ought not to be appointed by department heads whose work they would eventually pass on but by someone else—perhaps a nonpartisan commission set up for the purpose. Under such a scheme, department historians would serve in the same relationship to the bureaucracy that U.S. Supreme Court justices have with the executive and legislative branches.
Any student of the 20th century will pause before endorsing any kind of official history. Wiser it would be, perhaps, to look to an outside body, to guarantee that history is used neither to apologize to the present nor to propagandize the future. The state library? A friendly foundation? The Better Government Association? Veterans of Illinois’s policy wars argue for each. William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, thinks the academy is the place to look. “One of the state universities, say UIS [the University of Illinois at Springfield], might become the institutional memory for state government and its various entities,” he says, “with the state endowing chairs of departments for this purpose.
Independence is a necessary condition for the work, but hardly the only one. The risks to an embedded historian would be scarcely less than those facing an embedded reporter. Each would-be court historian would be distrusted by the authorities on whose protection she depends. As is the case on any battlefield, much of what really determines outcomes during a policy war goes on where the historian can’t see it. And there is always the risk of identifying with helpful low-level combatants—the career middle-management staff members who are the bureaucracy’s equivalent of noncoms—to the detriment of one’s objectivity.
Writing department history would be a daunting job in narrow professional terms as well. One would need technical proficiency in such areas as oral history and archival management and, of course, some grasp of the broader currents of history in which state government gets caught up. One also would face the further constraints of working in, if not for, a state of Illinois bureaucracy. The American Historical Society notes that public history in general requires an understanding of different audiences (and the ability to communicate with ordinary people), along with a willingness and ability to work with others, which describes department life to a fare-thee-well.
I will borrow a jibe from corporate gadfly Nell Minow. Though she refers to private-sector executives, it fits public-sector executives, too: They are like subatomic particles, in that they behave differently when they are observed. The prospect of a historian lurking behind the coffee machine, aspiring to become the James Boswell to the administrator’s Samuel Johnson, would leave many of the latter sweating like an alderman in front of a grand jury. Mike Lawrence, former press secretary to Gov. Jim Edgar, worries that the prospect of confidential advice being used in a frank account of controversial program-making might have the unintended consequence of discouraging people from entering it into the public record, and thus, eventually, into the historical record. Without that kind of knowledge, however, we would know the what but not the why. “The history of rules and regulations,” observes Jess McDonald, director under four governors of the Department of Children and Family Services, “is like the wrapping paper on birthday presents. It hides what is inside.”
Some pertinent materials won’t be put in the public record, and some ought not to be. “There are several levels at which stories need to be understood,” explains McDonald, whose former agency is one of those where policy-making can be a life-or-death matter. “Some things cannot be said publicly. The debate about whether or not to settle or fight a court action, for instance, is one of the most important discussions that takes place in human services, but these privileged communications take place outside the public view. It actually should be that way."
The biggest problem with establishing a program of public history focused on executive policy is that the people who need such a program the most, and who have the authority to put it in place, would want it the least. Providing context, clarity and focus in the political discussion, says Bill Furry, would be invaluable to the media and to historians writing about government. But he adds, “Politicians, I suspect, would find it burdensome.”
Is there not history enough about Illinois state government? Politics, governors, constitutions, the General Assembly—these are the preoccupations of academic historians. Institutional histories of departments and other state bodies (apart, of course, from the legislature, universities and a handful of prisons and hospitals) are rare. A good one is Poor Relations, Joan Gittens’ history of the state of Illinois’ care of orphaned, disabled and delinquent children, which was quoted above.
Biographies and other studies of lowly administrators, laboring in neglected vineyards straggling for lack of light, are even more rare. This is unfortunate, as such people can wield more durable influence in state government than most governors. This was especially true in the early days of the commonwealth, when much of state government was still a malleable infant. One such is Stephen Forbes, who beginning in the 1870s served the state well as curator of what was then the Illinois Natural History Society Museum and later as the longtime chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey. Forbes deserved and got a decent biography—Stephen Forbes and the Rise of American Ecology. However, as the title suggests, the focus is on his career as a scientist (Forbes played what has been described as an important anticipatory role in the development of ecological studies) not as a public administrator.
In the absence of more formal accounts, we must glean what insights we can into the life of a state administrator from other published sources, such as memoirs. An entertaining example of the latter is “In Service to Clio,” which was published as part of a posthumous collection titled On a Variety of Subjects. In it, Paul Angle reflected ruefully on his tenure in the 1930s and ‘40s in charge of the Illinois State Historical Library. On securing his annual appropriation: “It turned out to be easy. One found out who really ran the show—usually no more than half a dozen men—one became acquainted, and the job was done.”
Not many department heads write as well as Angle. Indeed, few write anything at all about their time under the lash. Perhaps we should demand that retiring agency heads submit a memoir to the state library as a condition of their pensions. A few have at least talked about it. Back when it was Sangamon State University and mindful of its mission as a public affairs university, the Oral History Office of the future UIS recorded the recollections of several dozen executive branch officials and other veterans of state politics as part of its Illinois Statecraft project. The roster includes directors under various governors of the departments of Aging, Agriculture, Business and Economic Development, Finance, Public Welfare, Revenue, the Bureau of the Budget and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Alas, these sadder but wiser veterans are not as illuminating as one might wish on matters of policy and program administration. This is not unusual. Most ex-civil servants will tell you that state service was the most demanding, and sometimes the most gratifying part of their working lives, but seldom the most interesting.
Assuming such chronicles were assembled under some aegis, would they be read? Frank Beal, an alum of the Thompson Cabinet, says it would be useful to know the issues that have been addressed, how they were resolved and why. As he puts it, “Any department head worth appointing would surely find it of value.” Yes, but what about department heads not worth appointing? The purpose of policy-making in the state of Illinois is not wisdom but efficacy, defined politically or programmatically, and briefings that recall what is possible, rather than what is desirable, will find more favor with most incoming administrators.
Policy of consequence these days is made by half a dozen legislators and a few high-ranking administration executives, the latter usually members of a governor’s campaign. It is during and for the campaigns that most new policy is generated (or borrowed from think tanks or whichever interest groups are paying the candidates’ bills). These new ideas—if they are new—are then imposed on the departments. It is a rare governor who will ask department careerists whether a policy is wise or prudent or politic (which depends on which kind of governor is proposing it). In any event, patronage extends so deeply into the administrative structure these days that there are few senior career administrators who enjoy the clout to speak up against a misconceived initiative; informed silence is as useless as uninformed silence in shaping events.
Even if our policymakers were to become educated, would it matter? Would policy proposals be altered or abandoned in light of historical evidence that they had been tried and failed? No administration will willingly abandon a program promised during a campaign merely because those policies are shown to have failed in the past. Besides, it is the arrogance of each new administration to assume that if their good ideas failed in the past, it must have been because of funding or political interference or lack of commitment; they can make them work this time.
It should be noted that the notion of state-financed official history is itself something of a throwback. It is typically Progressive in its assumption that information—not money or influence or ethnicity or doctrinaire religion should be the basis of government decision-making. The better—meaning the more comprehensive, the more accurate, the more disinterested—that information is, the more likely good decisions about policy will result.
The Legislative Reference Bureau was founded in that hope in 1913. Among its more extreme advocates, such bureaus were seen as (in the words of a historian of the movement) “harbingers of the millennium.” This was extravagant. The bureau’s role was to make lawmaking more efficient, which it has done admirably. But wiser? Wisdom comes in the application of knowledge to public problems, not knowledge itself, and it is likely to be no different if that knowledge is historical. ●