Category Archives: Storytelling

Policy Concepts in 500 Words: Social Construction and Policy Design

Why would a democratic political system produce ‘degenerative’ policy that undermines democracy? Social Construction and Policy Design (SCPD) describes two main ways in which policymaking alienates many citizens:

1. The Social Construction of Target Populations

High profile politics and electoral competition can cause alienation:

  1. Political actors compete to tell ‘stories’ to assign praise or blame to groups of people. For example, politicians describe value judgements about who should be rewarded or punished by government. They base them on stereotypes of ‘target populations’, by (a) exploiting the ways in which many people think about groups, or (b) making emotional and superficial judgements, backed up with selective use of facts.
  2. These judgements have a ‘feed-forward’ effect: they are reproduced in policies, practices, and institutions. Such ‘policy designs’ can endure for years or decades. The distribution of rewards and sanctions is cumulative and difficult to overcome.
  3. Policy design has an impact on citizens, who participate in politics according to how they are characterised by government. Many know they will be treated badly; their engagement will be dispiriting.

Some groups have the power to challenge the way they are described by policymakers (and the media and public), and receive benefits behind the scenes despite their poor image. However, many people feel powerless, become disenchanted with politics, and do not engage in the democratic process.

SCTP depicts this dynamic with a 2-by-2 table in which target populations are described positively/ negatively and more or less able to respond:

SCPD 500 words 2 by 2

2. Bureaucratic and expert politics

Most policy issues are not salient and politicised in this way. Yet, low salience can exacerbate problems of citizen exclusion. Policies dominated by bureaucratic interests often alienate citizens receiving services. Or a small elite dominates policymaking when there is high acceptance that (a) the best policy is ‘evidence based’, and (b) the evidence should come from experts.

Overall, SCPD describes a political system with major potential to diminish democracy, containing key actors (a) politicising issues to reward or punish populations or (b) depoliticising issues with reference to science and objectivity. In both cases, policy design is not informed by routine citizen participation.

Take home message for students: SCPD began as Schneider and Ingram’s description of the US political system’s failure to solve major problems including inequality, poverty, crime, racism, sexism, and effective universal healthcare and education. Think about how its key drivers apply elsewhere: (1) some people make and exploit quick and emotional judgements for political gain, and others refer to expertise to limit debate; (2) these judgements inform policy design; and, (3) policy design sends signals to citizens which can diminish or boost their incentive to engage in politics.

For more, see the 1000-word and 5000-word versions. The latter has a detailed guide to further reading.





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Evidence based policymaking: 7 key themes

7 themes of EBPM

I looked back at my blog posts on the politics of ‘evidence based policymaking’ and found that I wrote quite a lot (particularly from 2016). Here is a list based on 7 key themes.

1. Use psychological insights to influence the use of evidence

My most-current concern. The same basic theme is that (a) people (including policymakers) are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you (b) bombard them with information, or (c) call them idiots.

Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers (shows how to use psychological insights to promote evidence in policymaking)

Using psychological insights in politics: can we do it without calling our opponents mental, hysterical, or stupid? (yes)

The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself? (older paper, linking studies of psychology with studies of EBPM)

Older posts on the same theme:

Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government? (yes)

We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

These complaints about ignoring science seem biased and naïve – and too easy to dismiss

How can we close the ‘cultural’ gap between the policymakers and scientists who ‘just don’t get it’?

2. How to use policy process insights to influence the use of evidence

I try to simplify key insights about the policy process to show to use evidence in it. One key message is to give up on the idea of an orderly policy process described by the policy cycle model. What should you do if a far more complicated process exists?

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking: 3 messages (3 ways to say that you should engage with the policy process that exists, not a mythical process that will never exist)

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs (shows how entrepreneurs are influential in politics)

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking? and What does it take to turn scientific evidence into policy? Lessons for illegal drugs from tobacco and There is no blueprint for evidence-based policy, so what do you do? (3 posts describing the conditions that must be met for evidence to ‘win the day’)

Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it (explains how our knowledge of the policy process helps communicate to policymakers)

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points (presentation to European Parliament-European University Institute ‘Policy Roundtable’ 2016)

Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do (presentation to Open Society Foundations New York 2016)

What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts? (part of a series of videos produced by the European Commission)

3. How to combine principles on ‘good evidence’, ‘good governance’, and ‘good practice’

My argument here is that EBPM is about deciding at the same time what is: (1) good evidence, and (2) a good way to make and deliver policy. If you just focus on one at a time – or consider one while ignoring the other – you cannot produce a defendable way to promote evidence-informed policy delivery.

Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy (summary of and link to our article on this very topic)

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it? (presentation to the Scottish Government on 2016)

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

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

The politics of implementing evidence-based policies

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

What Works (in a complex policymaking system)?

How Far Should You Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered?

4. Face up to your need to make profound choices to pursue EBPM

These posts have arisen largely from my attendance at academic-practitioner conferences on evidence and policy. Many participants tell the same story about the primacy of scientific evidence challenged by post-truth politics and emotional policymakers. I don’t find this argument convincing or useful. So, in many posts, I challenge these participants to think about more pragmatic ways to sum up and do something effective about their predicament.

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice? (shows how our knowledge of policymaking clarifies dilemmas about engagement)

The role of ‘standards for evidence’ in ‘evidence informed policymaking’ (argues that a strict adherence to scientific principles may help you become a good researcher but not an effective policy influencer)

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking? From ‘honest brokers’ to ‘research purists’ and Machiavellian manipulators (you have to make profound ethical and strategic choices when seeking to maximise the use of evidence in policy)

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions (calling yourself an ‘honest broker’ while complaining about ‘post-truth politics’ is a cop out)

What sciences count in government science advice? (political science, obvs)

I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience? (compares the often profoundly different ways in which scientists and political scientists understand and evaluate EBPM – this matters because, for example, we rarely discuss power in scientist-led debates)

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking? (no)

Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: … evidence-based policymaking (how to decide between idealism and pragmatism when engaging in politics)

Realistic ‘realist’ reviews: why do you need them and what might they look like? (if you privilege impact you need to build policy relevance into systematic reviews)

‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact? (describes ways to build evidence advocacy into research design)

The Politics of Evidence (review of – and link to – Justin Parkhurt’s book on the ‘good governance’ of evidence production and use)


5. For students and researchers wanting to read/ hear more

These posts are relatively theory-heavy, linking quite clearly to the academic study of public policy. Hopefully they provide a simple way into the policy literature which can, at times, be dense and jargony.

‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

Practical Lessons from Policy Theories (series of posts on the policy process, offering potential lessons for advocates of evidence use in policy)

Writing a policy paper and blog post 

12 things to know about studying public policy

Can you want evidence based policymaking if you don’t really know what it is? (defines each word in EBPM)

Can you separate the facts from your beliefs when making policy? (no, very no)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure (Evaluation) (using evidence to evaluate policy is inevitably political)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning (so is learning from the experience of others)

Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM)

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it? (read about it)

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making? (on translating policy theories into useful advice)

The role of evidence in UK policymaking after Brexit (argues that many challenges/ opportunities for evidence advocates will not change after Brexit)

Why is there more tobacco control policy than alcohol control policy in the UK? (it’s not just because there is more evidence of harm)

Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking and The politics of evidence-based policymaking: focus on ambiguity as much as uncertainty and Revisiting the main ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy: focus on ambiguity, not uncertainty and The barriers to evidence based policymaking in environmental policy (early versions of what became the chapters of the book)

6. Using storytelling to promote evidence use

This is increasingly a big interest for me. Storytelling is key to the effective conduct and communication of scientific research. Let’s not pretend we’re objective people just stating the facts (which is the least convincing story of all). So far, so good, except to say that the evidence on the impact of stories (for policy change advocacy) is limited. The major complication is that (a) the story you want to tell and have people hear interacts with (b) the story that your audience members tell themselves.

Combine Good Evidence and Emotional Stories to Change the World

Storytelling for Policy Change: promise and problems

Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

7. The major difficulties in using evidence for policy to reduce inequalities

These posts show how policymakers think about how to combine (a) often-patchy evidence with (b) their beliefs and (c) an electoral imperative to produce policies on inequalities, prevention, and early intervention. I suggest that it’s better to understand and engage with this process than complain about policy-based-evidence from the side-lines. If you do the latter, policymakers will ignore you.

What do you do when 20% of the population causes 80% of its problems? Possibly nothing.

The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy

How can you tell the difference between policy-based-evidence and evidence-based-policymaking?

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?

A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?

Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?

Note: these issues are discussed in similar ways in many countries. One example that caught my eye today:


All of this discussion can be found under the EBPM category:

See also the special issue on maximizing the use of evidence in policy

Palgrave C special

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, public policy, Storytelling, UK politics and policy

Telling Stories that Shape Public Policy

This is a guest post by Michael D. Jones (left) and Deserai Anderson Crow (right), discussing how to use insights from the Narrative Policy Framework to think about how to tell effective stories to achieve policy goals. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Imagine. You are an ecologist. You recently discovered that a chemical that is discharged from a local manufacturing plant is threatening a bird that locals love to watch every spring. Now, imagine that you desperately want your research to be relevant and make a difference to help save these birds. All of your training gives you depth of expertise that few others possess. Your training also gives you the ability to communicate and navigate things such as probabilities, uncertainty, and p-values with ease.

But as NPR’s Robert Krulwich argues, focusing on this very specialized training when you communicate policy problems could lead you in the wrong direction. While being true to the science and best practices of your training, one must also be able to tell a compelling story.  Perhaps combine your scientific findings with the story about the little old ladies who feed the birds in their backyards on spring mornings, emphasizing the beauty and majesty of these avian creatures, their role in the community, and how the toxic chemicals are not just a threat to the birds, but are also a threat to the community’s understanding of itself and its sense of place.  The latest social science is showing that if you tell a good story, your policy communications are likely to be more effective.

Why focus on stories?

The world is complex. We are bombarded with information as we move through our lives and we seek patterns within that information to simplify complexity and reduce ambiguity, so that we can make sense of the world and act within it.

The primary means by which human beings render complexity understandable and reduce ambiguity is through the telling of stories. We “fit” the world around us and the myriad of objects and people therein, into story patterns. We are by nature storytelling creatures. And if it is true of us as individuals, then we can also safely assume that storytelling matters for public policy where complexity and ambiguity abound.

Based on our (hopefully) forthcoming article (which has a heavy debt to Jones and Peterson, 2017 and Catherine Smith’s popular textbook) here we offer some abridged advice synthesizing some of the most current social science findings about how best to engage public policy storytelling. We break it down into five easy steps and offer a short discussion of likely intervention points within the policy process.

The 5 Steps of Good Policy Narrating

  1. Tell a Story: Remember, facts never speak for themselves. If you are presenting best practices, relaying scientific information, or detailing cost/benefit analyses, you are telling or contributing to a story.  Engage your storytelling deliberately.
  2. Set the Stage: Policy narratives have a setting and in this setting you will find specific evidence, geography, legal parameters, and other policy consequential items and information.  Think of these setting items as props.  Not all stages can hold every relevant prop.  Be true to science; be true to your craft, but set your stage with props that maximize the potency of your story, which always includes making your setting amenable to your audience.
  3. Establish the Plot: In public policy plots usually define the problem (and polices do not exist without at least a potential problem). Define your problem. Doing so determines the causes, which establishes blame.
  4. Cast the Characters:  Having established a plot and defined your problem, the roles you will need your characters to play become apparent. Determine who the victim is (who is harmed by the problem), who is responsible (the villain) and who can bring relief (the hero). Cast characters your audience will appreciate in their roles.
  5. Clearly Specify the Moral: Postmodern films might get away without having a point.  Policy narratives usually do not. Let your audience know what the solution is.

Public Policy Intervention Points

There are crucial points in the policy process where actors can use narratives to achieve their goals. We call these “intervention points” and all intervention points should be viewed as opportunities to tell a good policy story, although each will have its own constraints.

These intervention points include the most formal types of policy communication such as crafting of legislation or regulation, expert testimony or statements, and evaluation of policies. They also include less formal communications through the media and by citizens to government.

Each of these interventions can frequently be dry and jargon-laden, but it’s important to remember that by employing effective narratives within any of them, you are much more likely to see your policy goals met.

When considering how to construct your story within one or more of the various intervention points, we urge you to first consider several aspects of your role as a narrator.

  1. Who are you and what are your goals? Are you an outsider trying to affect change to solve a problem or push an agency to do something it might not be inclined to do?  Are you an insider trying to evaluate and improve policy making and implementation? Understanding your role and your goals is essential to both selecting an appropriate intervention point and optimizing your narrative therein.
  2. Carefully consider your audience. Who are they and what is their posture towards your overall goal? Understanding your audience’s values and beliefs is essential for avoiding invoking defensiveness.
  3. There is the intervention point itself – what is the best way to reach your audience? What are the rules for the type of communication you plan to use? For example, media communications can be done with lengthy press releases, interviews with the press, or in the confines of a simple tweet.  All of these methods have both formal and informal constraints that will determine what you can and can’t do.

Without deliberate consideration of your role, audience, the intervention point, and how your narrative links all of these pieces together, you are relying on chance to tell a compelling policy story.

On the other hand, thoughtful and purposeful storytelling that remains true to you, your values, your craft, and your best understanding of the facts, can allow you to be both the ecologist and the bird lover.


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Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

This post is one part of a series: Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Policy entrepreneurs’ invest their time wisely for future reward, and possess key skills that help them adapt particularly well to their environments. They are the agents for policy change who possess the knowledge, power, tenacity, and luck to be able to exploit key opportunities. They draw on three strategies:

1. Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence.

Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.

Table 1

2. By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution.

So, you produce your solution then chase problems.

Table 2

3. When your environment changes, your strategy changes.

For example, in the US federal level, you’re in the sea, and you’re a surfer waiting for the big wave. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, you can be Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.

Table 3

It all adds up to one simple piece of advice – timing and luck matters when making a policy case – but policy entrepreneurs know how to influence timing and help create their own luck.

For the full paper, see: Cairney Practical Lessons Policy Entrepreneurs Revised 5 June 17

For more on ‘multiple streams’ see:

Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2016) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Policy Studies Journal, 44, 1, 37-58 PDF (Annex to Cairney Jones 2016) (special issue of PSJ)

Paul Cairney and Nikos Zahariadis (2016) ‘Multiple streams analysis: A flexible metaphor presents an opportunity to operationalize agenda setting processes’ in Zahariadis, N. (eds) Handbook of Public Policy Agenda-Setting (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) PDF see also


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Folksy wisdom, public policy, Storytelling

Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it

This is a post for my talk at the ‘Politheor: European Policy Network’ event Write For Impact: Training In Op-Ed Writing For Policy Advocacy. There are other speakers with more experience of, and advice on, ‘op-ed’ writing. My aim is to describe key aspects of politics and policymaking to help the audience learn why they should write op-eds in a particular way for particular audiences.

A key rule in writing is to ‘know your audience’, but it’s easier said than done if you seek many sympathetic audiences in many parts of a complex policy process. Two simple rules should help make this process somewhat clearer:

  1. Learn how policymakers simplify their world, and
  2. Learn how policy environments influence their attention and choices.

We can use the same broad concepts to help explain both processes, in which many policymakers and influencers interact across many levels and types of government to produce what we call ‘policy’:

  1. Policymaker psychology: tell an evidence-informed story

Policymakers receive too much information, and seek ways to ignore most of it while making decisions. To do so, they use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ means: selecting a limited number of regular sources of information, and relying on emotion, gut instinct, habit, and familiarity with information. In other words, your audience combines cognition and emotion to deal with information, and they can ignore information for long periods then quickly shift their attention towards it, even if that information has not really changed.

Consequently, an op-ed focusing solely ‘the facts’ can be relatively ineffective compared to an evidence-informed story, perhaps with a notional setting, plot, hero, and moral. Your aim shifts from providing more and more evidence to reduce uncertainty about a problem, to providing a persuasive reason to reduce ambiguity. Ambiguity relates to the fact that policymakers can understand a policy problem in many different ways – such as tobacco as an economic good, issue of civil liberties, or public health epidemic – but often pay exclusive attention to one.

So, your aim may be to influence the simple ways in which people understand the world, to influence their demand for more information. An emotional appeal can transform a factual case, but only if you know how people engage emotionally with information. Sometimes, the same story can succeed with one audience but fail with another.

  1. Institutions: learn the ‘rules of the game’

Institutions are the rules people use in policymaking, including the formal, written down, and well understood rules setting out who is responsible for certain issues, and the informal, unwritten, and unclear rules informing action. The rules used by policymakers can help define the nature of a policy problem, who is best placed to solve it, who should be consulted routinely, and who can safely be ignored. These rules can endure for long periods and become like habits, particularly if policymakers pay little attention to a problem or why they define it in a particular way.

  1. Networks and coalitions: build coalitions and establish trust

Such informal rules, about how to understand a problem and who to speak with about it, can be reinforced in networks of policymakers and influencers.

‘Policy community’ partly describes a sense that most policymaking is processed out of the public spotlight, often despite minimal high level policymaker interest. Senior policymakers delegate responsibility for policymaking to bureaucrats, who seek information and advice from groups. Groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government, and policymakers have ‘standard operating procedures’ that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others

‘Policy community’ also describes a sense that the network seems fairly stable, built on high levels of trust between participants, based on factors such as reliability (the participant was a good source of information, and did not complain too much in public about decisions), a common aim or shared understanding of the problem, or the sense that influencers represent important groups.

So, the same policy case can have a greater impact if told by a well trusted actor in a policy community. Or, that community member may use networks to build key coalitions behind a case, use information from the network to understand which cases will have most impact, or know which audiences to seek.

  1. Ideas: learn the ‘currency’ of policy argument

This use of networks relates partly to learning the language of policy debate in particular ‘venues’, to learn what makes a convincing case. This language partly reflects a well-established ‘world view’ or the ‘core beliefs’ shared by participants. For example, a very specific ‘evidence-based’ language is used frequently in public health, while treasury departments look for some recognition of ‘value for money’ (according to a particular understanding of how you determine VFM). So, knowing your audience is knowing the terms of debate that are often so central to their worldview that they take them for granted and, in contrast, the forms of argument that are more difficult to pursue because they are challenging or unfamiliar to some audiences. Imagine a case that challenges completely someone’s world view, or one which is entirely consistent with it.

  1. Socioeconomic factors and events: influence how policymakers see the outside world

Some worldviews can be shattered by external events or crises, but this is a rare occurrence. It may be possible to generate a sense of crisis with reference to socioeconomic changes or events, but people will interpret these developments through the ‘lens’ of their own beliefs. In some cases, events seem impossible to ignore but we may not agree on their implications for action. In others, an external event only matters if policymakers pay attention to them. Indeed, we began this discussion with the insight that policymakers have to ignore almost all such information available to them.

Know your audience revisited: practical lessons from policy theories

To take into account all of these factors, while trying to make a very short and persuasive case, may seem impossible. Instead, we might pick up some basic rules of thumb from particular theories or approaches. We can discuss a few examples from ongoing work on ‘practical lessons from policy theories’.

Storytelling for policy impact

If you are telling a story with a setting, plot, hero, and moral, it may be more effective to focus on a hero than villain. More importantly, imagine two contrasting audiences: one is moved by your personal and story told to highlight some structural barriers to the wellbeing of key populations; another is unmoved, judges that person harshly, and thinks they would have done better in their shoes (perhaps they prefer to build policy on stereotypes of target populations). ‘Knowing your audience’ may involve some trial-and-error to determine which stories work under which circumstances.

Appealing to coalitions

Or, you may decide that it is impossible to write anything to appeal to all relevant audiences. Instead, you might tailor it to one, to reinforce its beliefs and encourage people to act. The ‘advocacy coalition framework’ describes such activities as routine: people go into politics to translate their beliefs into policy, they interpret the world through those beliefs, and they romanticise their own cause while demonising their opponents. If so, would a bland op-ed have much effect on any audience?

Learning from entrepreneurs

Policy entrepreneurs’ draw on three rules, two of which seem counterintuitive:

  1. Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence. Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.
  2. By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution. So, you produce your solution then chase problems.
  3. When your environment changes, your strategy changes. For example, in the US federal level, you’re in the sea, and you’re a surfer waiting for the big wave. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, you can be Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.

It all adds up to one simple piece of advice – timing and luck matters when making a policy case – but policy entrepreneurs know how to influence timing and help create their own luck.

On the day, we can use such concepts to help us think through the factors that you might think about while writing op-eds, even though it is very unlikely that you would mention them in your written work.


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

I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience?

‘Know your audience’ is a key phrase for anyone trying to convey a message successfully. To ‘know your audience’ is to understand the rules they use to make sense of your message, and therefore the adjustments you have to make to produce an effective message. Simple examples include:

  • The sarcasm rules. The first rule is fairly explicit. If you want to insult someone’s shirt, you (a) say ‘nice shirt, pal’, but also (b) use facial expressions or unusual speech patterns to signal that you mean the opposite of what you are saying. Otherwise, you’ve inadvertently paid someone a compliment, which is just not on. The second rule is implicit. Sarcasm is sometimes OK – as a joke or as some nice passive aggression – and a direct insult (‘that shirt is shite, pal’) as a joke is harder to pull off.
  • The joke rule. If you say that you went to the doctor because a strawberry was growing out of your arse and the doctor gave you some cream for it, you’d expect your audience to know you were joking because it’s such a ridiculous scenario and there’s a pun. Still, there’s a chance that, if you say it quickly, with a straight face, your audience is not expecting a joke, and/ or your audience’s first language is not English, your audience will take you seriously, if only for a second. It’s hilarious if your audience goes along with you, and a bit awkward if your audience asks kindly about your welfare.
  • Keep it simple stupid. If someone says KISS, or some modern equivalent – ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, the rule is that, generally, they are not calling you stupid (even though the insertion of the comma, in modern phrases, makes it look like they are). They are referring to the value of a simple design or explanation that as many people as possible can understand. If your audience doesn’t know the phrase, they may think you’re calling them stupid, stupid.

These rules can be analysed from various perspectives: linguistics, focusing on how and why rules of language develop; and philosophy, to help articulate how and why rules matter in sense making.

There is also a key role for psychological insights, since – for example – a lot of these rules relate to the routine ways in which people engage emotionally with the ‘signals’ or information they receive.

Think of the simple example of twitter engagement, in which people with emotional attachments to one position over another (say, pro- or anti- Brexit), respond instantly to a message (say, pro- or anti- Brexit). While some really let themselves down when they reply with their own tweet, and others don’t say a word, neither audience is immune from that emotional engagement with information. So, to ‘know your audience’ is to anticipate and adapt to the ways in which they will inevitably engage ‘rationally’ and ‘irrationally’ with your message.

I say this partly because I’ve been messing around with some simple ‘heuristics’ built on insights from psychology, including Psychology Based Policy Studies: 5 heuristics to maximise the use of evidence in policymaking .

Two audiences in the study of ‘evidence based policymaking’

I also say it because I’ve started to notice a big unintended consequence of knowing my audience: my one audience doesn’t like the message I’m giving the other. It’s a bit like gossip: maybe you only get away with it if only one audience is listening. If they are both listening, one audience seems to appreciate some new insights, while the other wonders if I’ve ever read a political science book.

The problem here is that two audiences have different rules to understand the messages that I help send. Let’s call them ‘science’ and ‘political science’ (please humour me – you’ve come this far). Then, let’s make some heroic binary distinctions in the rules each audience would use to interpret similar issues in a very different way.

I could go on with these provocative distinctions, but you get the idea. A belief taken for granted in one field will be treated as controversial in another. In one day, you can go to one workshop and hear the story of objective evidence, post-truth politics, and irrational politicians with low political will to select evidence-based policies, then go to another workshop and hear the story of subjective knowledge claims.

Or, I can give the same presentation and get two very different reactions. If these are the expectations of each audience, they will interpret and respond to my messages in very different ways.

So, imagine I use some psychology insights to appeal to the ‘science’ audience. I know that,  to keep it on side and receptive to my ideas, I should begin by being sympathetic to its aims. So, my implicit story is along the lines of, ‘if you believe in the primacy of science and seek evidence-based policy, here is what you need to do: adapt to irrational policymaking and find out where the action is in a complex policymaking system’. Then, if I’m feeling energetic and provocative, I’ll slip in some discussion about knowledge claims by saying something like, ‘politicians (and, by the way, some other scholars) don’t share your views on the hierarchy of evidence’, or inviting my audience to reflect on how far they’d go to override the beliefs of other people (such as the local communities or service users most affected by the evidence-based policies that seem most effective).

The problem with this story is that key parts are implicit and, by appearing to go along with my audience, I provoke a reaction in another audience: don’t you know that many people have valid knowledge claims? Politics is about values and power, don’t you know?

So, that’s where I am right now. I feel like I ‘know my audience’ but I am struggling to explain to my original political science audience that I need to describe its insights in a very particular way to have any traction in my other science audience. ‘Know your audience’ can only take you so far unless your other audience knows that you are engaged in knowing your audience.

If you want to know more, see:

Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking? From ‘honest brokers’ to ‘research purists’ and Machiavellian manipulators

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking?

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

When presenting evidence to policymakers, engage with the policy process that exists, not the process you wish existed



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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, 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