Category Archives: Storytelling

Racism and Stories in Scottish Politics

Brexit boosts the case for Scottish independence because it can now be framed more easily as the cosmopolitan choice: vote Yes to get away from a ‘little England’ mentality. This possibility was perhaps in Labour’s mind when it described Scottish nationalism as anything but cosmopolitan. For example, Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism, while former Labour minister Douglas Alexander left less room for doubt.

These claims prompted a small number of commentary pieces supporting or rejecting the idea that Scottish nationalism fosters racism, bigotry, and/ or social division:

  • Claire Heuchan welcomed Khan’s intervention cautiously, highlighting a tendency of Scottish actors to assert their superiority over their English counterparts, and using the opportunity to expand the debate, to highlight important issues that we often ignore, from personal stories of racist abuse and examples of more limited education and employment opportunities for people of colour, to the role of Scotland in the British empire’s colonial past built on slavery and exploitation.
  • In contrast, Robert Somynne identified a civic Scottish nationalism far apart from a ‘western trend towards populism based on tribal and ethnic divisions’, arguing that Khan’s description ‘doesn’t bear out the experience of so many people of colour in Scotland who campaigned in the grassroots’.
  • Kevin McKenna ridiculed Khan’s argument, rejecting the idea of nationalism underpinned by anti-Englishness, identifying a more divisive UK politics of which Labour is a key part, and dismissing Khan and others as part of ‘the leftwing intelligentsia’. John McKee argued that current Scottish nationalism is more about rejecting the British state than British people, while Eric Joyce links it more to rejecting more worrying forms of nationalism pursued by parties like UKIP.

The debate rages on in twitter, but the discussion has not been driven primarily by a willingness to listen, engage constructively, or talk about issues that challenge our beliefs. I don’t suppose you need me to explain why, but it’s worth highlighting three analytically-separate explanations that will likely be present throughout all debates like this:

  1. The devil shift undermines debate

People form coalitions with the people who share their beliefs, and they compete with people who don’t. The ‘devil shift’ describes a form of ‘groupthink’; a tendency of actors in those coalitions to romanticise their own cause and demonise the cause of their opponents: ‘anyone who disagrees with them must be mistaken about the facts, operating from the wrong value premises, or acting from evil motive’ (Sabatier, Hunter and McLaughlin). They question the motives of their opponents but not their allies, subject only their opponent’s arguments to criticism, and think their opponents are more powerful than they are.

If all debates are interpreted through this lens of Scottish independence, you can predict the results: Yes groups will see Khan’s intervention as threatening to their beliefs and aims, No groups will embrace it because it supports their beliefs and aims, and there is little scope for conflict resolution. Indeed, during such debates, we’ll put up with some sketchy characters if they support our cause while denouncing their equivalents in the other coalition.

This dynamic will be apparent each time we interpret each issue. For example, imagine a semi-honest and open discussion about Scotland and the colonial empire. One side might combine two points – Scotland ‘punches above its weight’ in every endeavour, and Scotland was part of the empire – to argue that Scotland played a disproportionate role in colonialism and slavery. The other will remind us of the unequal and coerced alliance of 1707 and/ or blame an unelected elite in Scotland for the Union and empire, to argue that Scottish independence is the best way to reject the colonial past. The same history has a very different villain and moral.

  1. There are two colliding roles of storytelling

We can identify two main roles of personal storytelling: (1) to empower an individual, when they share their experiences of life and feel listened to, and (2) to take forward a political agenda, when they identify a hero/ villain and moral that suits one coalition’s beliefs and aims.

In our case, it is difficult to separate the two, and most people are not willing or able to do so. This may be understandable with Khan’s recent intervention since, although he generally has an important story to tell from his perspective, this specific speech seemed designed to bolster the position of Scottish Labour at its party conference. Heuchan’s experience is more worrying, her motives seemed far less instrumental and her personal story was worth listening to, but almost no-one has simply said ‘thank you for your story’ without adding conditions or objections. There are very few spaces in which people will listen rather than judge.

  1. Some topics are unusually personal

In part, this is because few people like to think that they are racist or bigoted. Some won’t think about the ways in which they benefit from the systematic effects of racism – in which some groups benefit disproportionately from education/ employment opportunities and face a smaller risk of personal abuse – partly because they don’t have to, and it’s generally not an enjoyable experience. Others will flinch at the idea that they are privileged because they are white, often because they have vivid memories of personal experiences of abuse or disadvantage linked to another part of their background, such as their gender, class, religion, or disability.

So, we often want to tell our stories without listing to those of others. If there is no such space in which to exchange the details of such stories, we soon end up with heated, futile debates based on the sense that you don’t understand my experience or perspective before you criticise it. We can’t solve this problem, but we should at least be aware of it, and perhaps be aware that, although the Scottish debate has some unusual features, it is one of many examples of routine divisive politics.



Filed under Folksy wisdom, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, Storytelling

There may never be a good time to call #indyref2, but …

This is a blog post for one of the two talks I offered to give, first at Warwick then Dundee.

I’ll start off with the same admission of hubris each time: these talks take a while to arrange, I suggested the topic in the late summer, and I assumed I’d know something about the effect of Brexit on the future of Scottish politics by now. Instead, I don’t know much more than the stuff I described in June (‘Brexit and the inevitability of Scottish Independence’). So, I’ll focus on what we know now, and speculate wildly (hand gestures at 100%) about what might happen. My gut still tells me that there will be an indyref2 and that Yes will win, but my gut is pretty crap.

Let’s start with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for Yes:

  1. It reinforces a well-established argument for constitutional change: we voted for X but got Y because we are outnumbered by voters in England. Voting Remain but getting Leave is the latest version of voting Labour (and now SNP) in Scotland but getting a Conservative UK government.
  2. It reinforces the same argument about the effect of that ‘democratic deficit’: ‘London’/’Westminster’ is forcing us to accept policies we did not choose. Voting Leave is the latest version of the ‘bedroom tax’ (and, for older readers, the ‘poll tax’).
  3. It helps reframe the idea that the Scottish independence aim is nationalist and parochial. Suddenly, independence is the cosmopolitan choice if we are rejecting a ‘Little England’ mentality.
  4. Some people who voted to stay in the UK and EU will prefer the EU to the UK (and think an independence vote is the best way to achieve it).

Traditionally, the main response to 1 & 2 has come from the Conservative Party, offering concessions in areas such as spending, levels of representation in Westminster, and in Scotland’s status in UK-devolved relations.

Recently, UKIP has been more critical of Scotland’s privileged position in the UK, and even the Conservative party qualifies its support of Scotland’s place in the Union.

Labour’s more recent response has been more interesting, and not what I expected. I figured Scottish Labour would encourage the equivalent of a free vote of its members. Instead, it has rejected indyref2 in favour of a ‘federal’ solution and two anti-referendum strategies:

  1. To describe indyref2 as yet another divisive and destabilising event like Brexit and the election of Trump.
  2. To challenge the idea that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism. Although Khan is reported to have backtracked a bit, former Labour minister Douglas Alexander doubled down:

This strategy has gone down like a fart in a lift among people already committed to Yes. It’s too early to gauge its durability or long term effect on the voters thinking about switching, but we already know that the SNP campaigned in indyref1 with a message – for example, ‘to make life better for the people who live here’ – that contrasts heavily with the anti-immigrant rhetoric in some parts of the Leave campaign. Indeed, I’d expect it to reinforce a pro-immigration (or, a very pro-EU citizen) message to provide a deliberate contrast to parts of the Brexit campaign, making it relatively difficult for Labour to maintain an if-you-vote-Yes-you-share-the-same-aim-as-bigots argument (which didn’t work well during the Brexit debate anyway).

Let’s continue with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for No

  1. The No campaign was based on the economic harms of independence, and key symbols (like oil price volatility) have reinforced the message.
  2. We still don’t know what currency an independent Scotland would use.
  3. The Yes vote meant all things to all people, with no sense of what would be realistic.
  4. Brexit shows you that a transition to independence would be far tougher than advertised.

Point 4 is still unfolding. We’ve already seen that the £350m-for-the-NHS argument was mince, a reduction in the value of the pound, and some hard talking from likely EU negotiators (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (the £ issue is bad for the consumer but good for the exporter).

More importantly, it’s hard to know how to relate these events to Scotland. One the one hand, Yes needs a disastrous Brexit to show that it is powerless to ward off disaster. On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Can there be a ‘rational’ calculation of when/if to call indyref2?

If we focus on the idea of a rational calculating Nicola Sturgeon, developing a formula to determine the right time to hold indyref2, the timing would involve: (a) waiting long enough for Brexit to ‘bite’ and prompt voters to feel its effects and shift to Yes, and (b) waiting for the UK Government to stiff Scotland in its negotiations of future Scottish devolved powers, but (c) not waiting too long to disrupt the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time has not arrived and, as John Curtice suggests, may not arrive.

Or, will it come down to passion and emotion?

Yet, if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. So, why should leaders of the SNP be exempt from a bout of passion, especially if loads of their supporters are keen, see it as a last opportunity for decades, and hope that they can change some minds during the next campaign? The fact that I argue the very opposite in another post is neither here nor there!

I still think that the result itself will comes down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero/villain story now than in 2014, while No has the same old boring story of economic disaster and can no longer rely on those leaflets with Salmond’s face on a pound coin.

See also: a gazillion posts on the last Scottish referendum (scroll)




Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, Storytelling

The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard

I was interviewed in Science, on the topic of evidence-based policymaking, and we discussed some top tips for people seeking to maximise the use of evidence in a complex policy process (or, perhaps, feel less dispirited about the lack of EBPM in many cases). If it sparks your interest, I have some other work on this topic:

I am editing a series of forthcoming articles on maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy, and the idea is that health and environmental scientists can learn from many other disciplines about how to, for example, anticipate policymaker psychology, find the right policymaking venue, understand its rules and ‘currency’ (the language people use, to reflect dominant ways of thinking about problems), and tell effective stories to the right people.

Palgrave C special

I have also completed a book, some journal articles (PAR, E&P), and some blog posts on the ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’.

Pivot cover

Two posts appear in the Guardian political science blog (me, me and Kathryn Oliver).

One post, for practitioners, has ‘5 things you need to know’, and it links to presentations on the same theme to different audiences (Scotland, US, EU).


In this post, I’m trying to think through in more detail what we do with such insights.

The insights I describe come from policy theory, and I have produced 25 posts which introduce each of them in 1000 words (or, if you are super busy, 500 words). For example, the Science interview mentions a spirograph of many cycles, which is a reference to the idea of a policy cycle. Also look out for the 1000-word posts on framing and narrative and think about how they relate to the use of storytelling in policy.

If you like what you see, and want to see more, have a look at my general list of offerings (home page) or list of books and articles with links to theirs PDFs (CV).



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling

Combine Good Evidence and Emotional Stories to Change the World


This is my 2-page pitch for the Political Studies Association’s Total Exposure 2017 event on Thursday:

People are too quick to criticise the negative role of ideology, emotion, and manipulation in politics, especially after ‘Brexit’ and the rise of Donald Trump. Yet, a good positive and emotional story with a hero or convincing theme is just as important as ‘the evidence’ to social and policy change. This programme gives examples, shows you how to do it, and identifies what stories work. Through first person narrative, it describes the experiences of people telling their own stories, or of their heroes, to generate political attention and support for their cause. It provides additional narrative by experts on storytelling as a craft, and on the science of storytelling effectiveness, to connect powerful stories with the evidence on their role in politics. The end result is a programme which is entertaining, socially relevant, and informative. It will be backed up by further (accessible) reading for people inspired by its message and keen to learn and act accordingly.

Background: telling positive stories for political change

The Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump US President, really knocked the stuffing out of people who believe in the primacy of science. Many scientists seem shocked by what they perceive to be ‘post-truth politics’ in which ideology beats evidence.

This post-truth theme has begun to dominate academic discussions on social media and academic conferences. It is a timely issue in which a clear theme has emerged among scientific circles. Its message is dangerous, with the potential to further alienate scientists from politicians and members of the public. It could undermine the prospect of pragmatic debates, in which there is meaningful conversation between people with different points of view, and instead reinforce a tendency for people to speak only with the people whose beliefs they already share.

Too much ‘post-truth politics’ discussion is self-indulgent. Too many academics are quick to demonise the cynical world of politics and politicians and to romanticise their own causes or objectivity. They need to acknowledge that ideological and emotional thinking is a natural part of life, and a part of life to which they are not immune. ‘Experts’ are storytellers for their own cause, and they tell each other the same story about post-truth politics. What separates them from their competitors is that the latter are better at telling effective stories which manipulate the beliefs and emotions of their audience.

So, what can they do about it? Tell good, positive stories, combining scientific evidence with emotional hooks, to help people understand and care about important political issues.

Tell Good Stories to Get What You Want in Politics

So, this programme portrays storytelling in a more positive light, demonstrating how to tell a story with political impact. Its main themes will be ‘hope’ and ‘fear’, to contrast two strategies:

  1. Examples like Brexit and Donald Trump’s campaign are associated with fear, to identify villains (such as immigrants and terrorists) and describe political or policy change as a way to punish them. As short term strategies they are difficult to counter with reference to ‘the evidence’. Some opponents of Brexit and Trump are coming to terms with this strategic problem, but often do not have the knowledge or skills on which to base an effective response.
  2. Examples from other fields are associated with hope, often to identify heroes as symbols of positive political change, or to identify the broad political themes that these heroes represent. The programme can draw on a long list of well-established and promising stories – in fields such as sex work, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, HIV, mental health, criminal justice, disaster relief, and climate change – in which there are skilled advocates for major social and political change.

The discussions would be interspersed with expert commentary, on how to tell stories well and on the evidence of storytelling effectiveness, to provide key ‘take home’ messages on what makes an emotionally engaging story that people talk about and act on.

The Project’s Incredible Timeliness

The project is timely as a political issue. It is also timely in organisational terms. I have been discussing with Brett Davidson of Open Society Foundations (New York) this theme of storytelling, and how it relates to ‘evidence based policymaking’ (as part of a special collection of academic articles on evidence and policy). Davidson is an experienced radio journalist and convenor of a recent 2-day workshop on storytelling. My confidence in the theme of storytelling, and of identifying key stories and commentary, resulted from attending that workshop and hearing their stories and evidence.

The Large International Market

Brexit and Trump provide UK and US hooks that receive high global attention. The stories on which we can draw include personal experiences from people in South-East Asia, South Africa, the US, Latin America, and Eastern Europe (and indirect experiences in places like Syria and Palestine). As a whole, they provide global appeal and a range of salient topics. The immediate market for our academic work is academic, but the themes are wider and should appeal to audiences of radio shows/ podcasts like This American Life. Indeed, given the theme of the programme, it would be useful to follow a similar storytelling format. It could find, for example, a BBC Radio 4 audience but also be marketed as a podcast with international appeal.

The Major Long Term Impact: producing a new generation of storytelling scientists

My ‘high bar’ aim is to prompt a process in this order:

  1. We produce a programme which captures the attention of (the public and) academics and scientists.
  2. They listen to the show and recognise the impact of stories on them: their piqued interest is followed by their emotional engagement.
  3. They recognise the role that storytelling might have in their own research.
  4. We address their initial scepticism by providing some detail on the evidence of the impact of good stories on social and policy change.
  5. Many get in touch with us, and work with us to help them become scientist storytellers.

Bullet 5 is the main legacy. I have begun to work with Jerome Deroy, CEO of Narativ: The Listening and Storytelling Company, to explore the idea of training scientists to be effective storytellers. It could provide a follow-up show in which scientists explain the relevance of their evidence to pressing social and political problems.


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Storytelling

Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits?


Schneider and Ingram’s work on Social Construction and Policy Design identifies the populations deemed by policymakers to deserve the benefits or punishments of government policy.

The most concerted attempt to use this theoretical framework empirically is in Schneider and Ingram’s (2005b) edited book Deserving and Entitled, which focuses primarily on the social construction of particular target populations and its largely degenerative effect on US policy design (introduction here).

In this post, I summarise their insights in about 3000 words, splitting their five parts into seven main insights (that way, I can provide a far shorter summary in a journal article, and refer to this page for more discussion).

Insight 1: Policy designs that we take for granted now were built on social constructions of selective deservingness in the (often very distant) past, with key choices setting a precedent for policy design expansion.

Selective group entitlement to state benefits can be traced to the rules created in 1818, initially for very specific ‘veterans of the American Revolution’, providing benefits if they were: men who had travelled extensively to fight for at least nine months and were now ‘poor or unable to work’ (Jensen, 2005: 37). This excluded women, people who were otherwise poor, and veteran militia who fought locally. Officers were paid $20 per month but soldiers $8 (2005: 57). By 1832, pension entitlement extended to all who served for two years, and in 1836 it was expanded to their dependents if they died from war injuries. In 1871, Congress approved a non-means tested pension for those who served in the War of 1812 (and their widows) if they had demonstrated their patriotism by remaining ‘loyal to the United Stated during the Civil War’ and swearing an ‘oath to support the Constitution’, which excluded ‘aged southerners’ (2005: 58). Each expansion encouraged veteran participation: sending a signal about the entitlements that they would receive, or could campaign for if they didn’t.

Selective group exclusion from the ‘universal’ electoral franchise can be traced to a similar time, when many politicians equated popular participation with ‘mob rule’ and sought to limit inclusion. Schriner (2005: 66-7; 73; 76) identifies attempts to exclude ‘idiots’ and the ‘insane’ as the ‘antithesis of the democratic citizen’. For many politicians, they lacked the ‘intellectual competence necessary for political participation’ and/or were mistrusted by the politicians who equated incompetence with deviance, ‘moral degeneracy, dependency, and crime’ (2005: 76). These exclusions only came under serious challenge when social reformers had some success in shifting wider social constructions on mental capacity, highlighting the cruelty of asylums and challenging the link between intellectual incompetence and moral deviance (2005: 76).

Insight 2: Successful challenges to the social construction of target populations are possible but seem exceptional (and, can be at the expense of other minority groups).

Dialto (2005: 81) suggests that the image of Japanese-Americans shifted profoundly between 1941-61, from the hostility and fear of immigrant aliens underpinning WW2 relocation and interment (preceded by late 19th and early 20th century legal rulings which excluded naturalisation and the ability to buy land) to the tag of ‘model minority’ and good citizen. Strategies to change this image did not challenge discrimination directly: finding legal loopholes on land ownership through American-born children; internalising ‘their negative social construction’ and focusing on earning US citizenship (both before WW2); and, crucially, forming a Japanese-American US Army unit which earned war hero status (2005: 90-8). These efforts were reinforced by shifting contexts: internally, Japanese Americans were seen as less of an economic threat (internment left them ‘economically devastated’), and externally, Japan shifted from a threat to a common force against communism and new source of trade (2005: 98).

Court cases in the 1950s helped shift the rules of naturalisation and land ownership. Media coverage in the 1960s used positive portrayals of Japanese Americans, as working hard to overcome hardship, to contrast them with negative portrayals of others and ‘keep other minorities, such as blacks and Chicanos, in their place’ (2005: 99). The US President effectively apologised for internment in 1976, and Congress approved one-off compensation for internment survivors in 1988, and key federal court cases in the late 1980s challenged the War Department’s basis for discriminatory behaviour and convictions (2005: 100). Still, the ‘model minority’ tag has profound drawbacks, in which Japanese Americans perceive the need to live up to a stereotype to gain acceptance, while still facing social discrimination and violence (2005: 100). In other words, the shifting social construction of a social group does not necessarily indicate its growing power.

Insight 3: Advocates have used national policymaking institutions as a source of major change in policy design, but often with limited effects on delivery and/ or profound unintended consequences.

Although often contributing to degenerative policy design, Congress has proved a key organisation to challenging negative social constructions based on race. However, advocates of housing reform to reduce desegregation addressed major opposition (including public, congressional, and business) by assigning deserving/ undeserving status within racial minorities. The narrative underpinning legislative change on fair housing in 1968 was that only some black people deserved to benefit from policy: advocates told individual stories of the black middle class rejecting the life of the black rioter, who ‘deserved to escape the ghettos’, which helped create a race-based underclass (Sidney, 2005: 114-5). Further, this strategy secured very limited policy and social change, partly because few black people could afford the market price of homes in white areas (2005: 118). As predicted by Schneider and Ingram, the ‘benefits to weak groups’ are ‘undersubscribed and conferred at levels insufficient to change behaviour to an extent that it would remediate the problem’ (2005: 119). Policy changes in the late 70s and 80s were based on a ‘diluted’ message on race, focusing for example on the negative role of financial institutions, wider sources (such as class and age) of potential discrimination in housing, or on specific regions (not populations) that might benefit from community investment: the long term benefits of policy to reduce racial desegregation ‘remain fragile and open to dilution or contestation’ (2005: 137).

Congress also acted positively on immigration in 1965, making it ‘no longer acceptable’ for policies to ‘single out groups for exclusion on the base of race or national origin’. In 1986, it gave amnesty to illegal immigrants working in the US for five years, and punished employers not individuals for illegal immigration (Netwon, 2005: 139; 143). Yet, there remain fluctuations in social constructions of which target populations are willing and able to assimilate to achieve legitimate American citizenship, measured according to: legal citizenship, positive values regarding ‘hard work and self sufficiency’, and negative connotations of foreigners committing crimes, procreating excessively, claiming welfare and, during times of economic uncertainty, taking ‘scarce jobs from Americans’ (2005: 139-40; 142).

These negative constructions informed legislation from 1996 which increased southern border patrol staff, equipment, barriers, and detention facilities, made it easier to deport, raised the bar for employers to demonstrate continuously and adequately paid jobs, and reduced entitlement to social security, housing, and higher education subsidies to ‘remove the lure of public benefits’ for ‘problem’ immigrants (2005: 145-6; 151). In congressional debate, ways to define ‘unworthy’ immigrants related to arguments such as: they are freeloaders not paying taxes, but their children get access to free schools; if they break the law to get here, they’ll break the law while here; immigrants are causing a ‘lawless border’ that local law enforcement can’t control; and, an ineffective federal government is hindering border enforcement and blaming employers rather than the criminals (2005: 151-7). Further, rather than challenging such positions with positive counter narratives, opponents used a ‘cure worse than disease’ argument which pointed to the major unintended consequences of policy (for example, removing school entitlement will worsen crime) (2005: 163). Overall, congressional debates signal ‘who matters’ and which people (primarily Mexican) are the ‘wrong kinds of immigrants’ (2005: 166).

Insight 4: public and non-governmental bodies have some discretion to make policy when they deliver. The evidence is mixed on the extent to which those actors use that chance to reframe target populations more positively.

The social and welfare organisations funded to help target populations are often the bodies identifying many as undeserving. For example, Jurik and Cowgill (2005: 173) describe the difference between a potentially positive rationale and negative experience of ‘microenterprise development programs’. MDPs are often initially designed to reduce poverty by helping low-income people of colour with ‘business loans and training’, avoid the stigmatising and unintended consequences of ‘welfare schemes’, and providing programmes to encourage ‘women’s entrepreneurship’ and challenge male conceptions of business strategy and success (2005: 175). However, as philanthropic funding reduces and bodies become more reliant on government and other highly-conditional funding, MDP bodies feel they must demonstrate high performance and distinguish their work from ‘welfare programmes’, and staff become more risk averse to reduce financial losses (2005: 185). They make value judgements based on ‘white, middle-class, male centred standards of business’ to ‘evaluate client worthiness and attempt to resocialize them as well as shape access to further services’ (2005: 174). Worthiness is linked to likely success, and bodies engage in ‘creaming’ (focusing on the easiest, cheapest cases), use implicit moral assessments of character to identify a good attitude and reject ‘entitlement seekers’ and ‘dreamers’, with assessments often ‘class-laden, gendered, and racialized’ (2005: 177; 183). Consequently, people with the lowest incomes and levels of education are less likely to receive significant loans, and most likely to continue to be viewed as ‘helpless deviants … scorned by policymakers’ when they fail to “’lift’ themselves out of poverty” (2005: 196).

Camou (2005: 197-8) identifies a more positive story based on an unusual mix, in small ‘neighborhood organizations’ (non-profit, advocacy, and resident organizations), of constructing often-marginalised groups positively but to ‘resocialize them into an acceptable way of life’ containing the “‘correct’ ‘norms and values”. Most of the studied programs combine a focus on the ‘deficits’ of target populations (such as drug addiction, and low employability and education) and belief that they can’t ‘take control of their lives without interventions’ with the hope that they ‘can reject street values in favour of mainstream ones, including employment, nonviolence, family cohesion, delayed gratification, and respect for property’ (2005: 203). They combine direct interventions, such as programs to enhance employability, with indirect strategies based on some individuals leading by example and encouraging new rules (2005: 204-5). There is minimal emphasis on welfare and structural/ environmental factors such as housing supply, or on challenging a small number of deviants ruining the neighbourhood while helping the upwardly mobile or middle class population (2005: 206-13). Programs ‘tend not to “cream”’, particularly when staff live or recently lived in the same area: their focus is on challenging highly visible and vivid examples of ‘street values’ rather than encouraging the less visible and already positive behaviour (2005: 213-5). Camou (2005: 215) identifies a commitment to a form of ‘tough love’ that ‘would assume a different connotation if pursued by outsiders’; it might punish ‘deviants’ but it also ‘rewards the successful’ users of programs designed to help disadvantaged target populations.

Insight 5: only a small proportion of the many potentially demonised groups receive sustained negative policymaker attention, aided by the ‘moral entrepreneurs’, policy analysts, and ‘policy champions’ who translate specific social constructions into policy design.

Policymakers, the media, and public can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues that could be described as policy problems. So, sustained public anxiety and political attention to a target population requires three conditions (Nicholson-Crotty and Meier, 2005: 224). First, a group is already perceived negatively by many, perhaps with the additional sense that their behaviour is ‘out of control’. Second, a ‘moral entrepreneur’ draws attention to the group successfully: the public, or powerful sections or institutions within it, perceive the entrepreneur as an expert on the social value and group’s deviance; and, those powerful actors perceive a threat that extends from the deviant group to ‘the rest of society’ (2005: 225-7). Moral entrepreneurs use ‘typification’, using the behaviour visible in certain individuals to represent behaviour of a larger group, to identify a ‘dangerous class’ that can be blamed for many more social problems than linked to initial behaviour (2005: 227). Third, there must be ‘sufficient political profit’ to entice a ‘policy champion’ to set the agenda and pursue policy change (2005: 227).

For example, moral entrepreneurs such as Jacob Riis turned broad and widespread suspicion of Chinese immigrants, in the mid to late 19th century, into a specific concern about the spillover effects of their opium smoking: opium addiction spreading to the white population, with the danger of Chinese men using ‘cruel cunning’ to encourage young female ‘promiscuity’ in ‘opium dens’ (2005: 230). Policy champions, such as State Department Secretary Root, proposed legislation to prohibit the import of opium for smoking, thus restricting its effect largely to the Chinese population without prompting opposition from, for example, doctors using opiates for therapeutic purposes (2005: 233).

By the 1980s, a rapid increase in public fear of crime became linked closely to racially-charged fears of social change (2005: 235). Moral entrepreneurs such as James Q Wilson encouraged then used such concerns to generate support for a major shift in policy rationale, from a focus on the structural causes of crime (such as poverty), to a focus on individual responsibility or out of control gangs. Policy champions such as President Reagan and Representative Dan Lundgren pursued legislation (the Comprehensive Crime Act 1984) on the back of ‘organised crime’, ‘the drug racketeers who are poisoning our young people’, and testimony of victims (2005: 239). The effect of such policies is to identify approximately five million people as members of a ‘dangerous class’ (2005: 242).

Insight 6: well-intentioned but problematic social constructions produce unintended consequences if policy designs fail to address major socio-economic inequalities.

Bensonsmith (2005: 244-5) describes the ‘War on Poverty’ programs fostered by President Johnson from 1965, describing key actors such as Daniel Moynihan – author of The Negro Family (‘Moynihan Report’) – as moral entrepreneur and policy champion. Moynihan was part of a ‘new breed of public servants’ with social scientific training and seeking to define as well as solve policy problems (2005: 246). His report identified lower poverty in white and higher in black populations, arguing that the main cause was the ‘disintegration of the African-American family’, in which racism undermined the role of black men as breadwinners, contributing to family breakdown and deviant behaviour (2005: 246). Bensonsmith (2005: 247) argues that the report contributes to black stereotypes that endured from times of slavery, including the ‘shiftless black male’ and the ‘overly fertile and lazy welfare mother’, and that such stereotypes contributed to the idea that welfare dependency helped cause ‘pathological behavior’: ‘broken homes’ have a ‘matriarchal structure’ (aided by female social workers) with no ‘strong father figure’, and a key solution for black men is the ‘masculine world’ of military service (2005: 251). This social construction informed key welfare policies in two main steps. First, black mothers were often initially excluded from social security measures designed for the widows and their dependent children: the state would take on the male role if he died, not if he chose to leave. Second, as entitlement became defined more widely, it became more closely associated with the often-incorrect idea that a disproportionate number of black families received welfare benefits. The association between welfare and race, along with a greater focus on individual responsibility for a culture of dependency, helps cause victim blaming and program retrenchment (2005: 255-6).

Schram (2005: 261) provides an often-different interpretation, arguing that the failure to recognise major ‘racial disparities in the US economy’ helps ‘whitewash’ them rather than asking the ‘hard questions’ in the pursuit of ‘racial justice’. Going too far, to argue that welfare is used more by white than black families – as argued by the Welfare Law Centre’s Welfare Myths in 1996 – can be misleading (from 1985, only the absolute figures on first time use, but not more regular use, and not proportionate calculations, support its position). It is also counterproductive because ‘racial minorities’ were ‘more likely to be living in poverty and in need of public assistance at higher rates’ (2005: 267-70). Similarly, it is tempting for advocacy groups to generate support for welfare rights by associating them with white, middle class and recently divorced mothers as ‘job ready’ and in transition from welfare to work, but problematic because it helps produce insufficient public support for other groups (2005: 281). Programs become ‘bifurcated’, with the predominantly-white male ‘breadwinner’ able to benefit from social insurance based on their previous employment, and others reliant on less generous ‘public assistance’ (2005: 282).

Insight 7: social constructions of (a) deservedness and entitlement create ‘positive identities and participation’ in politics, (b) unworthiness create ‘alienation, resignation, and failure to participate politically’ (Ingram and Schneider, 2005c: 289).

Soss (2005: 291) examines the signals that a bifurcated US social welfare system sends to specific target populations, and how they feel and respond. He examines the idea that US welfare programs have become influenced by ‘new paternalism’, focusing on the ways in which programs are designed ostensibly to encourage good citizenship. In paternalist regimes, they may be associated with ‘civility, self-restraint, and compliance with social expectations’, reflecting the pursuit of ‘social order over social justice and civic compliance over political engagement’ (2005: 292). Different programs also provide profoundly different signals about citizenship, and the signal that a person gets from one key public organization affects their views of government as a whole (2005: 309).

The ‘superior tier’ consists of depersonalised federal ‘social security’ programs, primarily for the ‘elderly or disabled’, pegged to inflation and previous earnings, and producing a positive signal to ‘rights bearing’ recipients (2005: 294-5). The rules are stringent but recipients are encouraged and rewarded, to ‘come away feeling that their claims are welcome’ (2005: 297). Recipients often receive the financial security that allows them to participate in public life as much as the general population, a signal from government that their participation efforts would have a tangible effect, and do not generate feelings of stigma that undermine collective action (2005: 308).

The ‘lower tier’ consists of less generous public assistance ‘that disproportionately serve disadvantaged groups such as people of color, women, and people who have lived in poverty’ (2005: 295). They send negative signals, with recipients attached to state or local case workers and following convoluted and dispiriting rules to establish limited entitlement. Recipients become ‘clients’, vulnerable to bureaucratic rules, entitled to very little privacy (following invasive questions, fingerprinting, and/ or drug testing in some cases), made to attend in person despite limited access to transport, and subject to ‘unpleasant procedures’ in unwelcoming offices (‘authoritarian’ in design and appearance). Many are left vulnerable, with the feeling that ‘they are not valued and their claims unwanted’ and some ‘feeling exposed and humiliated’, powerless, or ‘like cattle’ (2005: 296-9). Recipients are living in poverty and/or fleeing abusive relationships, with minimal choice but to accept these rules without complaint, left with the felling that their feedback would not alter government staff behaviour, and feeling the stigma and lack of self-worth that undermines collective action (2005: 306-7; 310).

Yet, these perceptions are not inevitable. Rather, the key example of Head Start, in which parents participate in collective decisions about the running of local services for their children, ‘provide citizens with evidence that participation can be effective and fulfilling’ (2005: 305), and expose other programs for the minimal extent to which they encourage civic engagement (2005: 321).

If you want to read part two, here it is: scpd-more-empirical-insights-section-31-12-16


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Storytelling

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it?

Here are some notes for my talk to the Scottish Government on Thursday as part of its ‘inaugural ‘evidence in policy week’. The advertised abstract is as follows:

A key aim in government is to produce ‘evidence based’ (or ‘informed’) policy and policymaking, but it is easier said than done. It involves two key choices about (1) what evidence counts and how you should gather it, and (2) the extent to which central governments should encourage subnational policymakers to act on that evidence. Ideally, the principles we use to decide on the best evidence should be consistent with the governance principles we adopt to use evidence to make policy, but what happens when they seem to collide? Cairney provides three main ways in which to combine evidence and governance-based principles to help clarify those choices.

I plan to use the same basic structure of the talks I gave to the OSF (New York) and EUI-EP (Florence) in which I argue that every aspect of ‘evidence based policy making’ is riddled with the necessity to make political choices (even when we define EBPM):


I’ll then ‘zoom in’ on points 4 and 5 regarding the relationship between EBPM and governance principles. They are going to videotape the whole discussion to use for internal discussions, but I can post the initial talk here when it becomes available. Please don’t expect a TED talk (especially the E part of TED).

EBPM and good governance principles

The Scottish Government has a reputation for taking certain governance principles seriously, to promote high stakeholder ‘ownership’ and ‘localism’ on policy, and produce the image of a:

  1. Consensual consultation style in which it works closely with interest groups, public bodies, local government organisations, voluntary sector and professional bodies, and unions when making policy.
  2. Trust-based implementation style indicating a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to public bodies, including local authorities, in a meaningful way

Many aspects of this image were cultivated by former Permanent Secretaries: Sir John Elvidge described a ‘Scottish Model’ focused on joined-up government and outcomes-based approaches to policymaking and delivery, and Sir Peter Housden labelled the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) as an alternative to the UK’s command-and-control model of government, focusing on the ‘co-production’ of policy with local communities and citizens.

The ‘Scottish Approach’ has implications for evidence based policy making

Note the major implication for our definition of EBPM. One possible definition, derived from ‘evidence based medicine’, refers to a hierarchy of evidence in which randomised control trials and their systematic review are at the top, while expertise, professional experience and service user feedback are close to the bottom. An uncompromising use of RCTs in policy requires that we maintain a uniform model, with the same basic intervention adopted and rolled out within many areas. The focus is on identifying an intervention’s ‘active ingredient’, applying the correct dosage, and evaluating its success continuously.

This approach seems to challenge the commitment to localism and ‘co-production’.

At the other end of the spectrum is a storytelling approach to the use of evidence in policy. In this case, we begin with key governance principles – such as valuing the ‘assets’ of individuals and communities – and inviting people to help make and deliver policy. Practitioners and service users share stories of their experiences and invite others to learn from them. There is no model of delivery and no ‘active ingredient’.

This approach seems to challenge the commitment to ‘evidence based policy’

The Goldilocks approach to evidence based policy making: the improvement method

We can understand the Scottish Government’s often-preferred method in that context. It has made a commitment to:

Service performance and improvement underpinned by data, evidence and the application of improvement methodologies

So, policymakers use many sources of evidence to identify promising, make broad recommendations to practitioners about the outcomes they seek, and they train practitioners in the improvement method (a form of continuous learning summed up by a ‘Plan-Do-Study-Act’ cycle).

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

This approach appears to offer the best of both worlds; just the right mix of central direction and local discretion, with the promise of combining well-established evidence from sources including RCTs with evidence from local experimentation and experience.

Four unresolved issues in decentralised evidence-based policy making

Not surprisingly, our story does not end there. I think there are four unresolved issues in this process:

  1. The Scottish Government often indicates a preference for improvement methods but actually supports all three of the methods I describe. This might reflect an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or the inability to establish a favoured approach.
  2. There is not a single way of understanding ‘improvement methodology’. I describe something akin to a localist model here, but other people describe a far more research-led and centrally coordinated process.
  3. Anecdotally, I hear regularly that key stakeholders do not like the improvement method. One could interpret this as a temporary problem, before people really get it and it starts to work, or a fundamental difference between some people in government and many of the local stakeholders so important to the ‘Scottish approach’.

4. The spectre of democratic accountability and the politics of EBPM

The fourth unresolved issue is the biggest: it’s difficult to know how this approach connects with the most important reference in Scottish politics: the need to maintain Westminster-style democratic accountability, through periodic elections and more regular reports by ministers to the Scottish Parliament. This requires a strong sense of central government and ministerial control – if you know who is in charge, you know who to hold to account or reward or punish in the next election.

In principle, the ‘Scottish approach’ provides a way to bring together key aims into a single narrative. An open and accessible consultation style maximises the gathering of information and advice and fosters group ownership. A national strategic framework, with cross-cutting aims, reduces departmental silos and balances an image of democratic accountability with the pursuit of administrative devolution, through partnership agreements with local authorities, the formation of community planning partnerships, and the encouragement of community and user-driven design of public services. The formation of relationships with public bodies and other organisations delivering services, based on trust, fosters the production of common aims across the public sector, and reduces the need for top-down policymaking. An outcomes-focus provides space for evidence-based and continuous learning about what works.

In practice, a government often needs to appear to take quick and decisive action from the centre, demonstrate policy progress and its role in that progress, and intervene when things go wrong. So, alongside localism it maintains a legislative, financial, and performance management framework which limits localism.

How far do you go to ensure EBPM?

So, when I describe the ‘5 things to do’, usually the fifth element is about how far scientists may want to go, to insist on one model of EBPM when it has the potential to contradict important governance principles relating to consultation and localism. For a central government, the question is starker:

Do you have much choice about your model of EBPM when the democratic imperative is so striking?

I’ll leave it there on a cliff hanger, since these are largely questions to prompt discussion in specific workshops. If you can’t attend, there is further reading on the EBPM and EVIDENCE tabs on this blog, and specific papers on the Scottish dimension

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’: Implications for Public Service Delivery

Paul Cairney, Siabhainn Russell and Emily St Denny (2016) “The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking: what issues are territorial and what are universal?” Policy and Politics, 44, 3, 333-50

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages




Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, Storytelling

Storytelling for Policy Change: promise and problems

I went to a fantastic workshop on storytelling for policy change. It was hosted by Open Society Foundations New York (25/6 October), and brought together a wide range of people from different backgrounds: Narativ, people experienced in telling their own story, advocacy and professional groups using stories to promote social or policy change, major funders, journalists, and academics. There was already a lot of goodwill in the room at the beginning, and by the end there was more than a lot!

The OSF plans to write up a summary of the whole discussion, so my aim is to highlight the relevance for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ and for scientists and academics seeking more ‘impact’ for their research. In short, although I recommend that scientists ‘turn a large amount of scientific evidence into simple and effective stories that appeal to the biases of policymakers’, it’s easier said than done, and not something scientists are trained in. Good storytellers might enthuse people already committed to the idea of storytelling for policy, but what about scientists more committed to the language of scientific evidence and perhaps sceptical about the need to develop this new skill (particularly those who describe stories pejoratively as ‘anecdata’)? What would make them take a leap in the dark, to give up precious research time to develop skills in storytelling?

So, let me tell you why I thought the workshop was brilliant – including outlining its key insights – and why you might not!

Why I thought it was brilliant

Academic conferences can be horrible: a seemingly never-ending list of panels with 4-5 paper givers and a discussant, taking up almost all of the talking time with too-long and often-self-indulgent and long-winded PowerPoint presentations and little time for meaningful discussion. It’s a test of meeting deadlines for the presenter and an endurance test for the listener.

This workshop was different: the organisers thought about what it means to talk and listen, and therefore how to encourage people to talk in an interesting way and encourage high attention and engagement.

There were three main ‘listening exercises’: a personal exercise in which you closed your eyes and thought about the obstacles to listening (I confess that I cheated on that one); a paired exercise in which one person listened and thought of three poses to sum up the other’s short story; and a group exercise in which people paired up, told and then summarised each other’s stories, and spoke as a group about the implications.

This final exercise was powerful: we told often-revealing stories to strangers, built up trust very quickly, and became emotionally involved in each other’s accounts. It was interesting to watch how quickly we could become personally invested in each other’s discussion, form networks, and listen intently to each other.

For me, it was a good exercise in demonstrating what you need in a policymaker audience: ideally, they should care about the problem you raise, be personally invested in trying to solve it, and trust you and therefore your description of the most feasible solutions. If it helps recreate these conditions, a storytelling scientist may be more effective than an ‘honest broker’. Without a good story to engage your audience, your evidence will be like a drop in the ocean and your audience might be checking its email or playing Pokemon Go while you present.

Key insights and impressions

Most participants expressed strong optimism about the effect of stories on society and policy, particularly when the aim is more expressive than instrumental: the act itself of telling one’s story and being heard can be empowering, particularly within marginalised groups from which we hear few voices. It can also be remarkably powerful, remarkably quickly: most of us were crying or laughing instantly and frequently as we heard many moving stories about many issues. It’s hard to overstate just how effective many of these stories were when you heard them in person.

When discussing more instrumental concerns – can we use a story to get what we want? – the optimism was more cautious and qualified. Key themes included:

  • The balance between effective and ethical storytelling, accepting that if a story is a commodity it can be used by people less sympathetic to our aims, and exploring the ethics of using the lens of sympathetic characters (e.g. white grandparents) to make the case for marginalised groups.
  • This ethical dimension was reinforced continuously by stories of vulnerable storytellers and the balance between telling their story and protecting their safety.
  • The importance of context: the same story may have more or less impact depending on the nature of the audience; many examples conveyed the sense that a story with huge impact now would have failed 10 or 20 years ago and/ or in a different region.
  • The importance of tailoring stories to the biases of audiences and trying to reframe the implications of your audience’s beliefs (one particularly interesting example was of portraying equal marriage in Ireland as the Christian thing to do).
  • Many campaigns used humour and positive stories with heroes, based on the assumption that audiences would be put off by depressing stories of problems with no obvious solution but energised by a message of new possibilities.
  • Many warned against stories that were too personal, identifying the potential for an audience to want to criticise or fix an individual’s life rather than solve a systemic problem (and this individualistic interpretation was most pronounced among people identifying with right-wing parties).
  • Many described the need to experiment/ engage in trial-and-error to identify what works with each audience, including the length of written messages, choice of media, and choice of ‘thin’ stories with clear messages to generate quick attention or ‘thick’ stories which might be more memorable if we have the resources to tell them and people take the time to listen.

Many of these points will seem familiar if you study psychology or the psychology of policymaking. So, the benefit of these experiences is that they tell us how people have applied such insights and how it has helped their cause. Most speakers were confident that they were making an impact.

Why you may not be as impressed: two reasons

The first barrier to getting you enthusiastic is that you weren’t there. If emotional engagement is such a key part of storytelling, and you weren’t there to hear it, why would you care? So, a key barrier to making an ‘impact’ with storytelling is that it is difficult to increase its scale. You might persuade someone if they spent enough time with you, but what if you only had a few seconds in which to impress them or, worse still, you couldn’t impress them because they weren’t interested in the first place? Our worry may be that we can only influence people who are already open to our idea. This isn’t the end of the world, since a key political aim may be to enthuse people who share your beliefs and get them to act (for example, to spread the word to their friends). However, it prompts us to wonder about the varying effect of the same message and the extent to which our message’s power comes from our audience rather than our story.

The second barrier is that, when the question is framed for an academic audience – what is the scientific evidence on the impact of stories? – the answer is not clear.

On the panel devoted to this question (and in a previous session), there were some convincing accounts of the impact of initiatives such as: the Women’s Policy Institute ‘grass roots’ training in California (leading to advocacy prompting 2 dozen bills to be signed over 13 years); Purpose’s branding campaign for the White Helmets (including the miracle baby video which has received tens of millions of views); and, the Frame Works Institute’s ability to change minds with very brief interventions (for example, getting people to think in terms of problem systems more than problem individuals in areas like criminal justice).

However, the academic analysis – with contributions from Francesca Polletta, Jeff Niederdeppe, Douglas Storey, Michael Jones – tended to stress caution or note limited effects:

  • Stories work when they create an empathic reaction, but intensely personal experiences are difficult to recreate when mediated (soap operas and ‘edutainment’ come closest).
  • Randomised control trials suggest that stories have a measurable effect, but it’s small and compared to no intervention at all rather than a competing approach such as providing evidence in reports (note that most experimental studies do not draw on skilful storytellers)
  • Stories work most clearly when they reinforce the beliefs of your allies (and when you refer to heroes, not villains), but the effects are indirect at best with your opponents.

More research required?!

So, you might want more convincing evidence before you take that giant leap to train to become a skilful storyteller: why go for it when its effects are so unclear and difficult to measure?

For me, that response might seem sensible but is also a cop out: unequivocal evidence may never arrive and good science often involves researching as you go. A key insight into policymaking regards a continuous sense of urgency to solve problems: policymakers don’t wait for the evidence to become unequivocal before they act, partly because that sense of clarity may never happen. They feel the need to act on the basis of available evidence. Perhaps scientists should at least think about doing the same when they seek to act on research rather than simply do the research: how long should you postpone potentially valuable action with the old cliché ‘more research required’?



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling