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.
- Setting. It relates to a policymaking context, including institutional and socio-economic factors.
- Characters. It contains at least one actor, such as a hero or villain.
- 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.
- 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.