Case study: Furthering engagement with policy

Peter Mandler, Royal Historical Society

1. Summary of the development/change and who led it

The Royal Historical Society has been expanding its range of engagements with education and research policy and improving its outreach on external as well as internal issues to its membership, other humanities groups, the general public, the media and policymakers. To support the efforts of its voluntary leadership it has taken on a new part-time Research and Communications Officer to provide research assistance and to implement a new communications strategy, and launched a web development project that is providing a modern web and social media presence for the Society (as well as integrating its office functions with the online interface).

2. Drivers for the development/change

  • The breakdown of the ‘network’ of HEIs and the shortening of the ‘arm’s length’ between government and funding bodies has placed a new burden on learned societies such as ours to represent academic quality and freedom in our disciplines, both to the HEIs themselves and to funding bodies and government. The Society has over the last 10-15 years taken more direct responsibility for helping to formulate and communicating the views of academics to bodies such as AHRC, ESRC, HEFCE, HEA, BIS, DfE, and the school examination boards, as well as to our own membership, the media and the wider public.
  • The Society has a small office with administrative staff who service the voluntary leadership, maintain financial and  membership records, administer membership applications, small grants and prizes, and communicate with the membership.   But this staff (one full-time, one part-time) lacked the capacity to add to their responsibilities fundraising, outreach and research functions.
  • The full-time academics who provide the Society’s voluntary leadership have had to acquire more and more specialist understanding of policy issues, including issues not previously seen as part of their remit, such as the school curriculum, widening participation and social mobility, equalities issues, research into teaching and learning, and some international issues.  Support both to research and to communicate these issues was needed on a more dedicated basis.
  • The Society had not been able to keep up with new departures in web-based communication;  a full-service website and social media presence have long been needed, but the Society lacked technical skills or staff capacity to provide them.

3. Date implementation started and stage reached by December 2015

Implementation gradually phased in over last 3 years. Website and social media presence are up and running. Integration of internal membership and grant provision functions into the website is not yet complete. Only a few research projects as yet completed.

4. Outcomes to date

  • A well-designed and high-functioning website ( now provides a regular flow of new information to the public, including an archive of internal and policy documents, notices of events (the Society’s own, but also an automated service advertising other events of interest to historians), blog-style commentary on ‘history in the news’, and contributions to current debates.
  • The Society’s Twitter account has nearly 10,000 followers.
  • Our first research project under this new regime – on gender equality in academic History departments – has been completed, with a report available online, workshops in London and Glasgow, and follow-up activities under way. This report has been widely praised and cited as instigating practical action by funding bodies and university departments around the country.
  • A regular service providing quantitative and other data on the ‘state of history’ at school and university level is in the planning stage.

5. Main challenges /barriers that had to be overcome and how this was achieved

  • By far the greatest challenge was finding professional web design and technical services that could both provide high-quality and high-functioning web tools and tailor them fully and properly to the needs of a small learned society. We have had to run through a number of providers – both direct providers of services and project managers – and this has both extended the time necessary to achieve our goals and also extended our budget.
  • It is difficult to create the ‘culture change’ (among staff, officers and membership alike), especially in a long-lived and generally successful society such as ours, necessary to take on substantially new functions that are not oriented directly to the membership and to traditional learned-society activities such as organising lectures, conferences and publications. One course of action was to create a new staff handbook with a full suite of policies that has helped to clarify roles and lines of responsibility.
  • Further to this ‘culture change’, additional burdens are placed on a voluntary leadership with full-time jobs already in managing and/or retraining the staff, researching new departures (both policy itself and also the technical innovations needed to support the staff), and soliciting and monitoring service providers. Taking on new staff and redistributing responsibilities can help with this, but it can also generate further work. One course of action has been to provide a partial ‘buy-out’ for one of the voluntary officers to enable them to dedicate more time to overseeing the staff work.

6. Lessons learned/ advice to others considering similar developments

  • Make sure your policies and procedures with regard to staff and voluntary leadership are up to date.
  • Take a lot of advice from cognate bodies before undertaking a major investment in web services. (In general, a lot is to be gained by working alongside and in partnership with other bodies such as your own.)
  • With appropriate expertise and a serious (i.e. academic!) approach to understanding policy, it is possible for a relatively small and under-resourced learned society to punch well about its weight. Policymakers and journalists recognise expertise (and ignorance or superficiality) when they see it. They don’t see a lot of it right now from learned societies outside the sciences.