Tag Archives: storytelling in politics

A 5-step strategy to make evidence count

5 stepsLet’s imagine a heroic researcher, producing the best evidence and fearlessly ‘speaking truth to power’. Then, let’s place this person in four scenarios, each of which combines a discussion of evidence, policy, and politics in different ways.

  1. Imagine your hero presents to HM Treasury an evidence-based report concluding that a unitary UK state would be far more efficient than a union state guaranteeing Scottish devolution. The evidence is top quality and the reasoning is sound, but the research question is ridiculous. The result of political deliberation and electoral choice suggests that your hero is asking a research question that does not deserve to be funded in the current political climate. Your hero is a clown.
  2. Imagine your hero presents to the Department of Health a report based on the systematic review of multiple randomised control trials. It recommends that you roll out an almost-identical early years or public health intervention across the whole country. We need high ‘fidelity’ to the model to ensure the correct ‘dosage’ and to measure its effect scientifically. The evidence is of the highest quality, but the research question is not quite right. The government has decided to devolve this responsibility to local public bodies and/ or encourage the co-production of public service design by local public bodies, communities, and service users. So, to focus narrowly on fidelity would be to ignore political choices (perhaps backed by different evidence) about how best to govern. If you don’t know the politics involved, you will ask the wrong questions or provide evidence with unclear relevance. Your hero is either a fool, naïve to the dynamics of governance, or a villain willing to ignore governance principles.        
  3. Imagine two fundamentally different – but equally heroic – professions with their own ideas about evidence. One favours a hierarchy of evidence in which RCTs and their systematic review is at the top, and service user and practitioner feedback is near the bottom. The other rejects this hierarchy completely, identifying the unique, complex relationship between practitioner and service user which requires high discretion to make choices in situations that will differ each time. Trying to resolve a debate between them with reference to ‘the evidence’ makes no sense. This is about a conflict between two heroes with opposing beliefs and preferences that can only be resolved through compromise or political choice. This is, oh I don’t know, Batman v Superman, saved by Wonder Woman.
  4. Imagine you want the evidence on hydraulic fracturing for shale oil and gas. We know that ‘the evidence’ follows the question: how much can we extract? How much revenue will it produce? Is it safe, from an engineering point of view? Is it safe, from a public health point of view? What will be its impact on climate change? What proportion of the public supports it? What proportion of the electorate supports it? Who will win and lose from the decision? It would be naïve to think that there is some kind of neutral way to produce an evidence-based analysis of such issues. The commissioning and integration of evidence has to be political. To pretend otherwise is a political strategy. Your hero may be another person’s villain.

Now, let’s use these scenarios to produce a 5-step way to ‘make evidence count’.

Step 1. Respect the positive role of politics

A narrow focus on making the supply of evidence count, via ‘evidence-based policymaking’, will always be dispiriting because it ignores politics or treats political choice as an inconvenience. If we:

  • begin with a focus on why we need political systems to make authoritative choices between conflicting preferences, and take governance principles seriously, we can
  • identify the demand for evidence in that context, then be more strategic and pragmatic about making evidence count, and
  • be less dispirited about the outcome.

In other words, think about the positive and necessary role of democratic politics before bemoaning post-truth politics and policy-based-evidence-making.

Step 2. Reject simple models of evidence-based policymaking

Policy is not made in a cycle containing a linear series of separate stages and we won’t ‘make evidence count’ by using it to inform our practices.


You might not want to give up the cycle image because it presents a simple account of how you should make policy. It suggests that we elect policymakers then: identify their aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is legitimised by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement and then evaluate. Or, policymakers aided by expert policy analysts make and legitimise choices, skilful public servants carry them out, and, policy analysts assess the results using evidence.

One compromise is to keep the cycle then show how messy it is in practice:

However, there comes a point when there is too much mess, and the image no longer helps you explain (a) to the public what you are doing, or (b) to providers of evidence how they should engage in political systems. By this point, simple messages from more complicated policy theories may be more useful.

Or, we may no longer want a cycle to symbolise a single source of policymaking authority. In a multi-level system, with many ‘centres’ possessing their own sources of legitimate authority, a single and simple policy cycle seems too artificial to be useful.

Step 3. Tell a simple story about your evidence

People are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you bombard them with too much evidence. Policymakers already have too much evidence and they seek ways to reduce their cognitive load, relying on: (a) trusted sources of concise evidence relevant to their aims, and (b) their own experience, gut instinct, beliefs, and emotions.

The implication of both shortcuts is that we need to tell simple and persuasive stories about the substance and implications of the evidence we present. To say that ‘the evidence does not speak for itself’ may seem trite, but I’ve met too many people who assume naively that it will somehow ‘win the day’. In contrast, civil servants know that the evidence-informed advice they give to ministers needs to relate to the story that government ministers tell to the public.


Step 4.  Tailor your story to many audiences

In a complex or multi-level environment, one story to one audience (such as a minister) is not enough. If there are many key sources of policymaking authority – including public bodies with high autonomy, organisations and practitioners with the discretion to deliver services, and service users involved in designing services – there are many stories being told about what we should be doing and why. We may convince one audience and alienate (or fail to inspire) another with the same story.

Step 5. Clarify and address key dilemmas with political choice, not evidence

Let me give you one example of the dilemmas that must arise when you combine evidence and politics to produce policy: how do you produce a model of ‘evidence based best practice’ which combines evidence and governance principles in a consistent way? Here are 3 ideal-type models which answer the question in very different ways

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

The table helps us think through the tensions between models, built on very different principles of good evidence and governance.

In practice, you may want to combine different elements, perhaps while arguing that the loss of consistency is lower than the gain from flexibility. Or, the dynamics of political systems limit such choice or prompt ad hoc and inconsistent choices.

I built a lot of this analysis on the experiences of the Scottish Government, which juggles all three models, including a key focus on improvement method in its Early Years Collaborative.

However, Kathryn Oliver and I show that the UK government faces the same basic dilemma and addresses it in similar ways.

The example freshest in my mind is Sure Start. Its rationale was built on RCT evidence and systematic review. However, its roll-out was built more on local flexibility and service design than insistence on fidelity to a model. More recently, the Troubled Families programme initially set the policy agenda and criteria for inclusion, but increasingly invites local public bodies to select the most appropriate interventions, aided by the Early Intervention Foundation which reviews the evidence but does not insist on one-best-way. Emily St Denny and I explore these issues further in our forthcoming book on prevention policy, an exemplar case study of a field in which it is difficult to know how to ‘make evidence count’.

If you prefer a 3-step take home message:

  1. I think we use phrases like ‘impact’ and ‘make evidence count’ to reflect a vague and general worry about a decline in respect for evidence and experts. Certainly, when I go to large conferences of scientists, they usually tell a story about ‘post-truth’ politics.
  2. Usually, these stories do not acknowledge the difference between two different explanations for an evidence-policy gap: (a) pathological policymaking and corrupt politicians, versus (b) complex policymaking and politicians having to make choices despite uncertainty.
  3. To produce evidence with ‘impact’, and know how to ‘make evidence count’, we need to understand the policy process and the demand for evidence within it.

*Background. This is a post for my talk at the Government Economic Service and Government Social Research Service Annual Training Conference (15th September 2017). This year’s theme is ‘Impact and Future-Proofing: Making Evidence Count’. My brief is to discuss evidence use in the Scottish Government, but it faces the same basic question as the UK Government: how do you combine principles of evidence quality and governance principles? In other words, if you were in a position to design an (a) evidence-gathering system and (b) a political system, you’d soon find major points of tension between them. Resolving those tensions involves political choice, not more evidence. Of course, you are not in a position to design both systems, so the more complicated question is: how do you satisfy principles of evidence and governance in a complex policy process, often driven by policymaker psychology, over which you have little control?  Here are 7 different ‘answers’.

Powerpoint Paul Cairney @ GES GSRS 2017

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, 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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Filed under 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

Scottish Politics in Brexit Britain: is independence inevitable?

CAirney Scottish Politics Brexit Dundee CAfe 2017

This is an updated and shortened version of previous posts, designed for my talk at the Dundee Arts Café tonight. I’d like to thank First Minster Nicola Sturgeon for making me look like the best scheduler of a talk ever:

We don’t know much about the second referendum on Scottish independence, but we can be guided by three basic insights:

  1. Most people make up their mind fairly quickly and may not be swayed too much by the campaign, but there are enough undecided voters to tip the result

2. The campaign will come down to who can tell the best story (to stir the emotions, perhaps with a convincing hero and moral) rather than simply command the facts.

3. Brexit has changed the independence story dramatically, but it could support either Yes/ No campaign.

The rest is mostly gut-driven speculation: I think Yes will win, partly because it has a new way to present its case, and a better campaigner to do so, while (as ridiculous as this sounds) No may look like it is banging on about the same old arguments, and it’s less clear who will do it.

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 or 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 challenge 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), or perhaps feel let down by the claim that a No vote in 2014 was to stay in the UK and EU.

Historically, the main response to 1 & 2 came 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.

This strategy was generally received badly 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, rather, 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 misleading, witnessed a reduction in the value of the pound, and seen some hard talking from likely EU negotiators that might be emulated in Scotland-UK discussions (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (see for example the sterling issue).

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. Ideally, it would wait long enough to argue that (a) Brexit is starting to ‘bite’, (b) the UK Government is stiffing Scotland in its negotiations of future devolved powers, but not so long that (c) it disrupts the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time may not arrive, and the date is not in the SNP’s gift.

On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Who will have the best story?

If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. I still think that the result itself will come down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero (Nicola Sturgeon)/villain (Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Theresa May?) 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. Who will become the face of No (I reckon it will be Davidson), and how can they repackage the same arguments (who knows)?




Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

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’?


See also: the OSF summary of the workshop


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

Week 2. Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government #POLU9UK

I want you to think about the simple presentation of complex thought.

  • How do we turn a world which seems infinitely complex into an explanation which describes that world in a few minutes or seconds?
  • How do we choose the information on which to focus, at the expense of all other information, and generate support for that choice?
  • How do we persuade other people to act on that information?

To that end, this week we focus on two stories of politics, and next month you can use these questions to underpin your coursework.

Imagine the study of British politics as the telling of policymaking stories.

We can’t understand or explain everything about politics. Instead, we turn a complex world into a set of simple stories in which we identify, for example, the key actors, events and outcomes. Maybe we’ll stick to dry description, or maybe we’ll identify excitement, heroes, villains, and a moral. Then, we can compare these tales, to see if they add up to a comprehensive account of politics, or if they give us contradictory stories and force us to choose between them.

As scholars, we tell these stories to help explain what is happening, and do research to help us decide which story seems most convincing. However, we also study policymakers who use such stories to justify their action, or the commentators using them to criticise the ineffectiveness of those policymakers. So, one intriguing and potentially confusing prospect is that we can tell stories about policymakers (or their critics) who tell misleading stories!

Remember King Canute (Cnut)

King Canute


If you’re still with me, have a quick look at Hay’s King Canute article (or my summary of it). Yes, that’s right: he got a whole article out of King Canute. I couldn’t believe it either. I was gobsmacked when I realised how good it was too. For our purposes, it highlights three things:

  1. We’ll use the same shorthand terms – ‘Westminster model’, ‘complex government’ – but let’s check if we tell the same stories in the same way.
  2. Let’s check if we pick the same moral. For example, if ministers don’t get what they want, is it because of bad policymaking or factors outside of their control? Further, are we making empirical evaluations and/or moral judgements?
  3. Let’s identify how policymakers tell that story, and what impact the telling has on the outcome. For example, does it help get them re-elected? Does the need or desire to present policymaking help or hinder actual policymaking? Is ‘heresthetic’ a real word?

The two stories

This week, we’ll initially compare two stories about British politics: the Westminster Model and Complex Government. I present them largely as contrasting accounts of politics and policymaking, but only to keep things simple at first.

One is about central control in the hands of a small number of ministers. It contains some or all of these elements, depending on who is doing the telling:

  1. Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government.
  2. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Another is about the profound limits to the WM:

  1. No-one seems to be in control. The huge size and reach of government, the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making, the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy, the multi-level nature of policymaking, and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other, all contribute to this perception.
  2. If elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get top-down government.

What is the moral of these stories?

For us, a moral relates to (a) how the world works or should work, (b) what happens when it doesn’t work in the way we expect, (c) who is to blame for that, and/ or (d) what we should do about it.

For example, what if we start with the WM as a good thing: you get strong, decisive, and responsible government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. If it doesn’t quite work out like that, we might jump straight to pragmatism: if elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get strong and decisive government, it makes little sense to blame elected policymakers for things outside of their control, and so we need more realistic forms of accountability (including institutional, local, and service-user).

Who would buy that story though? We need someone to blame!

Yet, things get complicated when you try to identify a moral built on who to blame for it:

There is a ‘universal’ part of the story, and it is difficult to hold a grudge against the universe. In other words, think of the aspects of policymaking that seem to relate to limitations such as ‘bounded rationality’. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy. Consequently, there is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence, often summed up by the term governance rather than government. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government. Or, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them.

There is UKspecific part of the story, but it’s difficult to blame policymakers that are no longer in government. UK Governments have exacerbated the ‘governance problem’, or the gap between an appearance of central control and what central governments can actually do. A collection of administrative reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. Examples include privatisation, civil service reforms, and the use of quangos and non-governmental organisations to deliver policies. Further, a collection of constitutional reforms has shifted power up to the EU and down to devolved and regional or local authorities.

How do policymakers (and their critics) tell these stories, how should they tell them, and what is the effect in each case?

Let’s see how many different stories we can come up with, perhaps with reference to specific examples. Their basic characteristics might include:

  • Referring primarily to the WM, to blame elected governments for not fulfilling their promises or for being ineffectual. If they are in charge, and they don’t follow through, it’s their fault linked to poor judgement.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, but still blaming ministers. Yes, there are limits to central control but it’s up to ministers to overcome them.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, and blaming other people. Ministers gave you this task, so why didn’t you deliver?
  • Referring to CG, and blaming more people. Yes, there are many actors, but why the hell can’t they get together to fix this?
  • Referring to CG and wondering if it makes sense to blame anyone in particular. It’s the whole damn system! Government is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

In broader terms, let’s discuss what happens when our two initial stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support.

For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?

The answer, I think, is that they try out lots of solutions at the same time:

  • They try to deliver as many manifesto promises as possible, and the manifesto remains a key reference point for ministers and civil servants.
  • They often deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by making quick emotional and moral choices about ‘target populations’ before thinking through the consequences
  • In cases of ‘low politics’ they might rely on policy communities and/ or seek to delegate responsibility to other public bodies
  • In cases of ‘high politics’, they need to present an image of governing competence based on central control, so they intervene regularly
  • Sometimes low politics becomes high politics, and vice versa, so they intervene on an ad hoc basis before ignoring important issues for long periods.
  • They try to delegate and centralise simultaneously, for example via performance management based on metrics and targets.

We might also talk, yet again, about Brexit. If Brexit is in part a response to these problems of diminished control, what stories can we identify about how ministers plan to take it back? What, for example, are the Three Musketeers saying these days? And how much control can they take back, given that the EU is one small part of our discussion?

Illustrative example: (1) troubled families

I can tell you a quick story about ‘troubled families’ policy, because I think it sums up neatly the UK Government’s attempt to look in control of a process over which it has limited influence:

  • It provides a simple story with a moral about who was to blame for the riots in England in 2011: bad parents and their unruly children (and perhaps the public sector professionals being too soft on them).
  • It sets out an immediate response from the centre: identify the families, pump in the money, turn their lives around.
  • But, if you look below the surface, you see the lack of control: it’s not that easy to identify ‘troubled families’, the government relies on many local public bodies to get anywhere, and few lives are actually being ‘turned around’.
  • We can see a double whammy of ‘wicked problems’: the policy problem often seems impervious to government action, and there is a lack of central control of that action.
  • So, governments focus on how they present their action, to look in control even when they recognise their limits.

Illustrative example: (2) prevention and early intervention

If you are still interested by this stage, look at this issue in its broader context, of the desire of governments to intervene early in the lives of (say) families to prevent bad things happening. With Emily St Denny, I ask why governments seem to make a sincere commitment to this task but fall far shorter than they expected. The key passage is here:

“Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems (Rittell and Webber, 1973) which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution”.

Group exercise.

Here is what I’ll ask you to do this week:

  • Describe the WM and CG stories in some depth in your groups, then we’ll compare your accounts.
  • Think of historical and contemporary examples of decision-making which seem to reinforce one story or the other, to help us decide which story seems most convincing in each case.
  • Try to describe the heroes/ villains in these stories, or their moral. For example, if the WM doesn’t explain the examples you describe, what should policymakers do about it? Will we only respect them if they refuse to give up, like Forest Gump or the ‘never give up, never surrender’ guy in Galaxy Quest? Or, if we would like to see pragmatic politicians, how would we sell their behaviour as equally heroic?


Filed under POLU9UK, public policy, UK politics and policy