Many of the debates about Whitehall’s future have their origins in the past. The central Civil Service (Whitehall) has undergone vast changes since 1979; people, tools and technology, jobs and public profile are all very different to three decades ago, but how different? The Contemporary History of Whitehall initiative, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), looked at the recent history of Whitehall between 1979 and 2010. It was undertaken through a partnership between the Institute for Government and King’s College London.


In an era in which Whitehall has again experienced major change and challenges, there is value in it benefitting from a better understanding of its own history and institutional memory.

This project sought to balance archival and documentary research with extensive interviews with people who worked in Whitehall during this period. The value of this project and its intended impact lay in the combination of historical humanities-driven research and practitioner perspectives.

The project looked chronologically and thematically at Whitehall to bring deeper research base to the Institute’s work, to inform its work with Whitehall, and to extend academic research into an important aspect of public policy.

  • The organisation – the form and construct of ‘Whitehall’, the role of the centre and particular departments. We will analyse how departments such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, HM Treasury or the Home Office developed over the period, and the shorter-lived departments and machinery of government changes that characterised the geography of Whitehall over the period.
  • The people – Whitehall is defined by the people in it as much as the way it is structured and the jobs it does. We will examine those who work in Whitehall and changes to how they have been recruited, trained, promoted and, importantly, led.
  • Role and functions – why were certain skills or roles, such as financial capability, policymaking and advice, or implementation and delivery, of lesser or greater importance during this time? What has been the effect of changes in communication, technology or in ways of managing public services?
  • Managing change and methods of reform – looking at the impact of various reforms from the Financial Management Initiative of 1982, through Next Steps, Continuity and Change and Modernising Government. Whitehall has seen both major and minor reform efforts. But to what effect and what can today’s Whitehall learn from them?
  • Policies and events – understanding Whitehall means understanding the narrative of major policies, political events, and characters of this period as well as the organisational history. But when and how does Whitehall shape such aspects and where and how is it shaped by them?
  • Role of the state – how have changes to the overall structure and purpose of government and state affected what Whitehall does? Whether it is Next Steps agencies, the role of the private and third sectors, increasing regulation or the increasingly important role of Europe. What did such changes mean for Whitehall, for the skills and expertise of its inhabitants? And what effect has this had on how the role of the Civil Service was, and is, understood?

Work programme

This was an ambitious project combining academic scholarship with an innovative approach to engagement and dissemination:

  • The historical research was used directly in engaging with current senior administrators and political decision makers
  • Links were built between government and academia through events and workshops at both King’s College London and the Institute for Government

The research team comprised Dr Catherine Haddon, an Institute for Government Fellow, with Professor Ken Young and Dr Joe Devanny, a post-doctoral researcher, both from King’s College London.

The research included archives, official documents and secondary literature as well as a large-scale interview programme.

The project used a variety of different methods to convey its learning, both to academic audiences through articles, conference papers and seminars and to practioners audiences in workshops and briefings papers. Witness seminars provided valuable discussion as well as  a resource for future researchers. Public events sought to draw out broader lessons about the role of history for institutional memory and within public policy more widely.

Further reading

Related projects