A historian among the bureaucrats

Reading time: 5 mins

Researchers don’t think enough about administration. We tend to look at bureaucracy as the most evil thing that was ever created 1. What about looking at it as a thing that can be changed, moreover, a thing that one can get involved in? With this mindset I ended up at the Creative Bureaucracy festival at Humboldt University in Berlin.

The first, maybe most important, thing one learns here is: we all have similar problems. We all have to get creative in ways we deal with bureaucratic challenges. There is too much to do and too few resources - which sounds like every research project ever done. But there are ways to deal with it and in academia, where we are involved with administrative duties on every step on the way, we can learn from the experiences as varied as:

  • small cities managing big projects (think: executing a grant with a too small a team);
  • state innovation officers (think: convincing your project leader/university administration that they do need this digital humanities component);
  • European bureaucrats (think: surviving the political jungle);
  • or NGO administrators (think: make my research and what I do understandable and useful to the public).

Academics, even if they don’t see their administrative roles so closely connected with the ideas at the festival, could benefit from the event by understanding better the challenges and struggles of university administrators and learn to appreciate them better. Looming large over all this is the question of the state and how should what you do be funded and/or regulated. The term “failed state” appeared very often - sometimes I belive, unjustly. One can really learn a lot from the creative bureaucrats. I was actually disappointed seeing so few fellow academics here - we are also bureaucrats, after all.2

As much as I think that a historian has a lot to learn here, I think that this festival lacks one major component: historians themselves. In a session devoted to statecraft Phillip Müller said that one should first look at the past before planning the future. He was right. You simply can’t discuss statecraft without its history.

Let me elaborate. The overwhelming feeling I got here was the drive to reclaim the idea of bureacracy as something that is not necessarily evil, something that can be creative, innovative, efficient, dynamic. Many introduced themselves proudly: “I’m a bureaucrat” - which I found bery cool. Somehow, as a given, a lot of the speakers presented this drive as a new, challenging task to be faced from scratch. Fortunately, as every historian can tell, this is not the case.

Creative Bureaucracy Festival

Reinventing bureaucracy is a process as old as the state itself. Seeing it not as something exceptional but as something that has multiple historical parallels might help in this process. The problem of who is a bureaucrat in the complicated state/business/society interface, where their loyalties and obligations lie was for example very much a feature of letter of late antique literati like Sidonius Apollinaris.

Defining and dealing with a “failed state” is something with which every historian of late antique and early medieval administration or urbanity (and also many other periods and disciplines) grapples on every step of their research. Those experiences can be directly applied to the problems of today. They can contribute to creative and conceptual work of today’s bureaucrats. Historians can help to problematise their struggles to make their task and their vocation anchored in fabric of the public discourse. “Design thinking”, “creative thinking” and “innovative thinking” have appeared as slogans on almost every step. It is worth adding to this set the idea of “historical thinking”. Historians deal with massive amounts of documents, many of them administrative, on a daily basis. Digital humanists, like myself, struggle with data mining, archive visualisation and management and the digital transformation of our field. We are used to ask fundamental and conceptual questions about those processes. As much as we still have a lot to do, we have answered some of them already. We can share those experiences both from the historical and digital perspective.

Those are only superficially far-fetched or lofty connections. One of the speakers, Ramon Marrades gave an amazing presentation on the transformations of the marina of Valencia. Listening to him one had the feeling that he understands the need to include the past in the current solutions. He wondered why his city, Valencia, was funded by the Romans 6 kilometers away from the sea and why another urban organism grew later directly at the shore. Roman decision from 2000 years ago and changing nature of urbanity in the later centuries directly influences his work and the challenges he has to face. He was amazing in describing the process and ways in which his office managed with those tasks. Marrades talked about “re-use” of former infrastructure and how this “re-use” created new links with the past. I felt at home, since I have researched exactly the same concept of “re-use” of Roman infrastructure by the inhabitants of late antique and early medieval Britain. Those challenges can be met better with “historical thinking” in mind. This session, like many others, also could have benefited from a historian.

Last but not least: for us, who work on digital projects in historical sciences and need to spearhead the effort to innovate and make them meaningful, we can share our very own and very present experiences with our colleagues, creative bureaucrats.

The festival format is perfectly suited for people from outside the administration to learn from the experiences of that sector 3. But it also allows us, historians, to bring our experiences here. We should be more proactive in sharing our research and our methods with other fields.

I hope that next year there will be more creative past to help make the creative future.

  1. In a way true. 

  2. We should also own it. 

  3. I want a “Fuck-up session” (yes, it did happen!) on every academic conference from now on! 

Written on September 8, 2018