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Adventures in the digital archives of contemporary health policy
Paul Atkinson, University of Liverpool
This seminar will discuss how a historian finds and uses sources for the contemporary history of health policy. I am writing a history of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), established in 1999. This organisation produces treatment guidelines and appraisals of health technologies such as drugs. In effect, government delegates to NICE the making of policy on the National Health Service’s choices about how to deliver each kind of care.
NICE belongs to the generation of ‘born digital’ organisations. Its records are electronic. As an organisation which does its business by public consultation, and needs transparency to make its products credible, NICE publishes a vast amount online. Much of this is preserved in the Government Web Archive, a resource of the National Archives, whose advantages and difficulties I will discuss. Like other contemporary historians, and in contrast to those examining earlier periods, my problem is often finding the needle in the haystack. NICE, and the Department of Health and Social Care, also preserve unpublished material in digital form, and I will discuss access to this.
Much contemporary political history uses published material like policy statements, records of debates, and journalism. Working papers are more elusive, though the government’s now reach the National Archives in twenty years, no longer thirty. Interviewing participants in the events I research identified private collections of papers, which add to the picture.
One of the historian’s first questions with sources is, what process of selection has led to this document being available and not others? Whose point of view is privileged in this? As a former civil servant, I will say something about the process by which government’s working documents are preserved or destroyed, and its implications for scholarship.