Singular memory or institutional memories? Toward a dynamic approach

08 Mar 2018

The ability of the civil service to act as a reservoir of institutional memory is central to the pragmatic task of governing. But there is a growing body of scholarship that suggests the bureaucracy is failing at this core task. In this article, we distinguish between two different ways of thinking about institutional memory: one “static” and one “dynamic.” In the former, memory is singular and held in document form, especially by files and procedures. In the latter, memories reside with people and are thus dispersed across the array of actors that make up the differentiated polity. Drawing on four policy examples from three countries, we argue that a more dynamic understanding of the way institutions remember is both empirically salient and normatively desirable. We conclude that the current conceptualization of institutional memory needs to be recalibrated to fit the types of policy learning practices required by modern collaborative governance.