Telling the Electorate a Story

A smart communicator tells a story that sets the stage for policy decisions.
October 6, 2010 AT 11:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

The political winds of summer and fall have stirred up a lot of commentary about "the narrative" surrounding one policy decision or another. One side may successfully "seize control of a narrative," or else "create a narrative" that, for example, fits the mood of the electorate.

These phrases all speak to the importance of conveying a sense of who, why and how, when persuading an audience. A smart communicator tells a story that sets the stage for the what.

Countless public officials have made difficult, complex decisions with the public interest paramount in their minds, only to have their motives and reasoning distorted and mischaracterized. At times this is simply political jousting, but often it stems from a failure by public officials to make decisions in an atmosphere of transparency. A clear path seen by all doesn't guarantee accolades from affected citizens, but it certainly helps to transfer responsibility to opponents to propose alternatives.

One of the more salient arguments I've seen for building a narrative to support policy choices in public management comes from Jim Brennan, a senior associate at the ERI Economic Research Institute. He suggests these points as a reality check for corporate human resource managers, but with just minor adaptation they can describe the perverse consequences of failing to build a narrative around public policy choices:

  • Any policy which is not explained will be misunderstood.
  • Any policy which is completely explained will still be misunderstood.
  • Any privilege not controlled by the company will be controlled by the employees. Public policy translation: Absent strong leadership, public agencies will tend to benefit employees rather than the public.
  • When a policy is kept secret, everyone naturally concludes that it is unfair.
  • When a policy is open to employee examination, few will bother to challenge it: they assume the company can easily defend whatever it lets them see. Public policy translation: Public agencies that present factual analysis about alternatives they've considered have generally set the framework of debate around those facts.

It's easy to find examples where narrative strategies came into play. The New York City policing strategy against "quality of life" crimes, like graffiti and turnstile jumping, was viewed initially as a misplaced priority until the public began hearing the message that these were gateway crime activities that affected a general sense of safety and were often committed by serial offenders. Catching such an offender for one misdemeanor often stopped a one-man crime wave, and the "broken windows" narrative became an integral element of progressive police administration.

In Pittsburgh, both the Archdiocese and the public schools system announced school closings, citing long-delayed consolidations of districts which had lost substantial enrollment due to population loss. Leaders in both systems presented the stark realities of stretching educational resources over too many buildings and classrooms, making the case to civic leadership, neighborhood groups and affected families. Many budgets, charts and maps shared over contentious tables eventually convinced stakeholders of the need to make hard decisions about the future of the two school systems. Today, both systems have strong leadership supported by the civic and business community, due in large measure to their ability to shape a narrative of improvement.

In Philadelphia, the long-ignored Delaware River waterfront had been left to opportunistic development, guided by no greater vision and with no role for citizens in deciding its future. Over an 18-month period, a civic planning process, involving dozens of civic groups and thousands of residents, shaped a long-term vision to turn the waterfront into an urban asset of lively mixed-used development. The political strength of this vision, developed over countless working sessions, shifted the balance of control among public and private interests and carried the vision across mayoral administrations. The narrative of participatory citizen-planning for a long-term future remains a compelling force.

These examples demonstrate the importance of a public narrative to overcome the instinctive distrust of decisions by public officials. Absent the rationale that the narrative provides, the what stands alone, out of context and vulnerable to misuse and misinterpretation.