The National Archives Labs

Visualised: Timelines of Government departments

This visualisation shows the departments responsible for foreign affairs from 1945 to the present. Clicking on the department names will take you to the corresponding department in Discovery.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those departments that suddenly disappeared years ago? Or perhaps you are trying to find out which department took over the work of ‘Department [X]’?

The aim of this project is to represent changes to the names and functions of government organisations, or departments, which administer the state. These organisations are often referred to as the ‘Machinery of Government’.

In an effort to visually represent Machinery of Government changes, we have constructed the first of a series of timelines. Each timeline will be based on an area of government responsibility and will show the creation, closure and transfer of function between central government departments. The first of the series relates to foreign affairs, and the next will be defence.

Why we created this tool

The National Archives holds a wealth of knowledge about government function and structure, which is ready to be exploited to clarify something that can be confusing. Discovery is being developed to make finding our records easier than ever before and this visualisation provides links to it where possible so that users can find out more about each department and discover the records we hold.

We had also already encoded much of the data to support the innovative Semantic Knowledge Base (SKB) project for the UK Government Web Archive, which uses groundbreaking technology to provide linkages between concepts and help users find resources in the web archive.

Read more in our blogpost.

How to use the tool

We have provided a key within the timeline, which explains the symbols used. There are dates and names of Prime Ministers alongside them to provide historical context at each change.

The timeline provides an accurate overview of changes to government structure over time. However, users should be aware that it:

- shows ministerial departments only, not their associated agencies and public bodies
- covers only the period from 1945 to present day
- will be extended to provide links to more precise information about each department at the time and, where possible, to the SKB

The machinery of government data can be accessed as the timeline and in table form coded in XML.

Representing this complex information in an engaging way was always going to be a challenge. We hope that you find this useful and interesting and we welcome your comments.

Comments (11)

  • David Matthew

    This will be useful. The Ministry of Overseas Development was as I understand it the Overseas Development Ministry as it was always referred to as the ODM and not the MoOD or MOD and confuse everyone!.

  • Howard Davies

    The timelines data has presumably been drawn from the administrative bodies identified in structured catalogue data? Effective, but vulnerable to quirks such as the Central African Office (1962-4), which should be on here, but presumably isn’t as its archived records only appear as a sub-set of one of the catalogue divisions of the Commonwealth Relations Office. Needs an informed human check to spot this sort of oversight.

    The National Archives reply:

    Howard, just a quick point to answer your comment about the Central African Office. We feel that while the office did have a secretary of state it was not a specific role: the two incumbents were also secretary of state for another department (R A Butler – Home Secretary and then Deputy Prime Minister; Duncan Sandys: Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and the Commonwealth). As a result, we will be not including it in this visualisation. But, again, thanks for your comment – they are all very useful in order to help us to develop a consistent methodology for these visualisations.

  • Alison Cullingford

    This is a great idea! Would also work well for universities where faculties, schools and depts always shifting.

  • The National Archives

    Thanks all for your comments.

    David, indeed ODM was the abbreviation used (and we used it during the sketching process) but Ministry of Overseas Development is the official name chosen.

    Howard, you make a great point that underlines one of the challenges we are facing. We did cross-reference with various texts but, yes, it does require a certain amount of human checking. This is a draft version, so many thanks for raising this omission

  • Anne Ward

    I have done work at Library and Archives Canada, and find that expressing the lifecycle of departmental organizations in this form will be very useful to LAC as well. I have a question regarding the XML expression of the lifecycle: has a given schema been adopted, or has one been developed (or is in development) to support the expression? If so, would someone be able to direct me to it?

    The National Archives reply:

    Thanks for your interest, Anne.

    This XML representation isn’t based on any known schema; it was simply put together in house (along with an accompanying XSL style sheet) to provide an alternative means of access to the data, which otherwise would only be presented via an image map.

    Please let us know if you have any further questions.

  • Social science sites of the week

    [...] National Archives timeline of foreign offices The Uk National Archives have created a really useful visualisation of name changes and responsibilities of Uk Foreign Affairs government departs from 1945 onwards on their labs website.The links click through to the Discovery catalogue where you can trace information and lists of records held by the archives for the individual department. Share and Enjoy: This entry was posted in Science & Social Science. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Paul Seabright on the Relationship Between the Sexes [...]

  • Alison Iredale

    I am looking for a similar timeline for departments of/for education, and particularly where further education has resides over the years. I hope you can point me in the right direction.

    The National Archives reply:

    Alison, thanks for your message. We are currently working on how best to represent the ‘domestic’ departments, the development of government responsibilities, and improve access to records here at The National Archives, while preserving simplistic design. That said, we have visualisations for Defence, Governance, and Health in development and will hopefully publish those soon.

    Your question interestingly brings up some of the challenges we are facing, in that what you might assume to be an ‘Education’ visualisation, would in fact incorporate departments outside that sphere (for example, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills is responsible for higher education), not to mention the crossover created by the Department of Education and Employment (1995-2001).

    As a potential user, would you find it more useful to have the themes of Education, Business, and Employment together on one visualisation because of that crossover (and lose a degree of visual simplicity) or have a more thematic approach where ‘Education’ or ‘Higher Education’ is followed strictly, potentially losing wider context? We would be grateful for any feedback you might have.

    Thanks and we hope we can provide you with a visualisation soon.

  • Jacqueline Speel

    A local government bodies timeline would be useful in a number of contexts.

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