Daily Archives: January 28, 2019

Policy in 500 Words: the Narrative Policy Framework

Most policy theories in this series begin with reference to bounded rationality. Policymakers and influencers can only process a tiny proportion of all policy relevant information. They must find ways to limit their attention, to make choices under political and time pressures. They combine cognition and emotion, or rational and irrational shortcuts. Actors also exercise power to frame issues, to focus the attention of their audience to specific information and ways to interpret issues.

Narrative can be an effective means to that end, but the stories that we tell people compete with the stories they tell to themselves. The same story can motivate some audiences, if it chimes with their beliefs or pulls their heartstrings, but backfire in others, if it grates with their view of the world.

In that context, the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) identifies the narrative strategies of actors seeking to exploit other actors’ cognitive biases. A narrative contains four elements:

  1. Setting. It relates to a policymaking context, including institutional and socio-economic factors.
  2. Characters. It contains at least one actor, such as a hero or villain.
  3. Plot. Common story arcs include: heroes going on a journey or facing and overcoming adversity, often relating to villains causing trouble and victims suffering tragedy.
  4. Moral. A story’s take-home point describes the cause of, and solution to, the policy problem.

Empirical NPF studies suggest that narrators are effective when they:

  • use an audience’s fundamental beliefs to influence their more malleable beliefs
  • tie their story to a hero rather than villain
  • help the audience imagine a concrete, not abstract, problem, and
  • connect individual stories to a well understood ‘grand narrative’.

They also compete with others, using stories to: ‘socialise’ or ‘privatise’ issues, romanticize their own coalition’s aim while demonizing others, or encourage governments to distribute benefits to heroic target populations and punishments to villains.

However, narrator success also depends on the audience and context. Particular narratives may only be influential during a window of opportunity in which the audience is receptive to the story, or when the story fits with the audience’s beliefs (think of the same message to left and right wing populations). Indeed, NPF studies suggest that the stories with the biggest short-term impact were on the audiences predisposed to accept them.

It may not seem important that stories have most impact when telling people what they already think, but it could make the difference between thought and action, such as when people turn out to vote or prioritise one problem at the expense of the rest. We may struggle to persuade people to change their minds, but we can encourage them to act by focusing their attention to one belief over another.

Follow up reading

As described, the NPF does not seem too controversial: people tell stories to themselves and each other, and persuasive stories really matter to policymaking. However, note the wider debate about the implications of the NPF’s ‘positivist’ approach in a field often characterised as ‘post-positivist’. This debate – for example in Critical Policy Studies – is a great way into some profound academic differences about (a) the nature of the world, (b) how we can gather knowledge of it, and (c) the methods we should use.

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Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.

Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), but also social groups and individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).

Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.

In practice, these more-or-less-observable forms of power co-exist and often reinforce each other:

Example 1. The control of elected office is highly skewed towards men. Male incumbency, combined with social norms about who should engage in politics and public life, signal to women that their efforts may be relatively unrewarded and routinely punished – for example, in electoral campaigns in which women face verbal and physical misogyny – and the oversupply of men in powerful positions tends to limit debates on feminist issues.

Example 2. ‘Epistemic violencedescribes the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.

It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas

Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything

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