Memories That Don’t Stand Still? Institutional Memory for Modern Governance

Dr. Jack Corbett
Dr. Rodney Scott
Prof. Heather Lovell
Dr. Dennis Grube

Are modern bureaucracies well equipped to capture institutional memory? It is part of the core function of the civil service in a modern democracy, yet increasingly scholars and practitioners alike argue that bureaucracies are failing at this central task. In this paper, we first draw out two different conceptions of what memory ‘is’ within institutional settings, ranging from static paper files locked in filing cabinets through to dynamic stories shared between arrays of actors across government and beyond. Drawing on cases from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, we suggest new ways in which civil servants might be able to operationalise the creation and retention of institutional memory. In the second part of the paper one of our Australian cases is analysed in further detail to explore processes of institutional amnesia in cases of policy failure. The case in question is that of a mandatory digital or ‘advanced’ metering program in the State of Victoria, Australia, which ran from 2009-2013 and encountered numerous difficulties – from cost overruns to failure in communication networks – leading to negative media attention and public protests. We examine to what extent, and how, the AMI program has been forgotten, several years later. We hypothesise that policy failures are difficult to forget, and examine this idea through empirical data comprising twenty interviews with public and private sector actors involved in the AMI program, as well as analysis of media coverage. We conclude that institutional forgetting is an active process, similar to forms of memory building, but also that it has distinct elements and thus requires new conceptualisations. In other words, forgetting cannot be neatly conceptualised as part of a continuum with memory building.