Long Story Short

It was all well and good saying, as I did, that my first blog was just a trailer, but now I’ve got to come up with the main feature – a regular blog. Where to start?

There’s a lot to tackle in the world of public policy, to say nothing of the other subjects I’d like to cover, so I want to do this in bite-sized chunks. The first chunk is actually less bite-sized, more a mouthful: the concept of narrative in public policy. 

I said in my ‘Reflections’ blog that politicians largely inhabit a world of narrative, while officials inhabit a world of evidence and analysis. The two should meet in the middle in a way that delivers the best possible outcomes for the public. 

Human beings are hard-wired for narrative. It’s something that comes from deep in our evolutionary history, and which plays out in our day-to-day lives, minute by minute. Being able to think ahead, to work through the consequences of acting in different ways, is an essential survival strategy that has taken humans to the top of the food chain. 

We’re constantly seeking out stories – face-to-face (including through gossip), in books, cinema, TV, on our smartphones or through whatever media comes to hand, in soaps, theatre, ‘reality TV’, dance, novels, sport, printed or broadcast news – in fact, in every corner of life. Our every email or message brings a new expectation. We create our own stories all the time, reading situations, projecting how we think they’re going to turn out and acting accordingly. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t.

We use narrative to structure and give meaning to our world. Humans don’t like uncertainty. That’s why a narrative with the headline ‘take back control’ is so powerful, especially when measured against the converse of no, thanks, I’d rather not have control

The other thing about narrative is the appeal to emotion. It can be difficult to get worked up about evidence and analysis, but everybody loves a good story. We come to own stories – they become a part of us, and we don’t want to let go. Being told that the narratives we believe in are wrong only affronts our emotional bond to them, and the chances are that we cling to them even more strongly (so-called ‘confirmation bias’). We believe we are thinking freely, but we’re each embedded in our own, often inflexible personal story. 

Yuval Noah Harari argues that the thing that marks out humans from other animals is our ability to create narratives about things that don’t exist in the natural world – things that we ‘have never seen, touched or smelled’. These narratives enable us to cooperate across much wider numbers than other animals; they bind us together (or, if you’re not part of a particular story, drive us apart). 

Every one of us, then, exists in this narrative bubble, passing judgement on what we see and hear based on what we have come to believe. The composition and extent of the bubble defines much of who we are. We like to think we’re rational, but we prefer to hear and believe the narratives we like rather than the ones we don’t. 

Let’s shift all this into the world of public policy, where narrative originates in a political stance. I should underline at this point that ‘narrative’ isn’t the same thing as public or strategic communication. It provides the basis for comms, which is the way in which the narrative is mediated to the public, but it’s not the comms itself. It’s something more fundamental, like the sketched outline of a project plan (I’ll come back to this in a moment). It’s also a broad baseline which can be interrogated to assess the overall sense and deliverability of a project. 

In the UK system, a political narrative crystallises in each party’s manifesto. This is what the electorate is supposed to vote on at the time of a General Election, though in truth, of course, few read such manifestos and make voting judgements on a less precise version of a party’s pitch. Officials do however take manifestos extremely seriously, and before an election will have studied the detail of the major parties’ manifestos to get an idea of what might be coming their way. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The manifesto, though, just states headlines, not detail. The 2019 Conservative Party election manifesto, for example, said that it wanted ‘to ensure every child has access to a great state school – that every pupil gets the qualifications they need for a prosperous future, while learning in an environment where they will be happy and fulfilled’. 

Once a general aspiration like that hits the machinery of Government, the narrative – the ‘vision’, if you like – has to get traction with the detail of policy development and delivery. It has to work within real world parameters, particularly resource availability and competing priorities across Government. It has to move from the general into the specific, from the simple into the complex. Underpinning an aspiration like this will be a multitude of programmatic elements which, in aggregate, deliver the aspiration. 

Programmes and projects are like stories. They’re initiated (the opening pages that catch the reader’s attention); move through a series of milestones (plot development); and then deliver outcomes (the ending that leaves you feeling that the story has been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, or the one that leaves you wondering what all that had been about). They’re technical forms of narrative. 

And so the public policy narrative has to go beyond a statement and become a ‘story arc’. Where is the policy heading? How does it end? What are the waypoints? What are the risks involved? Who has benefitted from going through this process? At the beginning of the story arc is the problem you’re seeking to fix; at the other end, the solution. Having a clear narrative means you can scan the horizon more effectively, anticipating the potential icebergs ahead. 

A manifesto commitment, of course, is far from being the only way a Government originates policy. Refreshing the narrative during a Parliamentary term is how a political party hopes to remain in power. New Ministers will have their own ideas. And then there’s the world, in all its unpredictability: the word ‘pandemic’ doesn’t appear in any of the major parties’ 2019 manifestos. 

Let’s have a quick look at a couple of specific examples of how narrative plays into public policy. First, the 2003 Iraq intervention. The story arc in UK foreign policy towards Iraq was aimed at depriving Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Needless to say, it didn’t work out like that. 

A Lynx Helicopter of the ARMY AIR CORPS touching down on a desert road south of Basra Airport, to link up with a RAF regiment vehicle patrol (Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0).

It’s instructive to look at then PM Tony Blair’s speech to Parliament on 18 March 2003, which sought to persuade Parliamentarians (in the event, successfully) to support the proposed intervention.

The speech sets out a very detailed vision, focused primarily on Saddam’s alleged possession of WMD, and on the nature of his regime. It takes a grand strategic view on the need to take action against dictators now to deter dictators in the future. There are mentions of wider factors, like the relationship with the US, but it is primarily a catalogue of Saddam’s malign behaviour and intent, and of the dangers of state-sponsored terrorism. If, as might reasonably be argued, the UK’s rationale for intervening in Iraq was primarily Atlanticist – the need to stick by our closest ally – then it’s woven in here very much as a sub-plot. 

The speech appeals to emotion at key points. ‘This is a tough choice. But it is also a stark one: to stand British troops down and turn back; or to hold firm to the course we have set.’ ‘Who will celebrate and who will weep?’ ‘This is the time for this house…to show that we will confront the tyrannies and dictatorships and terrorists who put our way of life at risk, to show at the moment of decision that we have the courage to do the right thing’. There is nothing inherently wrong with this language – it’s the stuff of oratory, and we all like to hear someone speaking with clarity and charisma – but in comparable circumstances the listener (and the policy professional, for that matter) needs always to divine the story behind the emotion.

What’s not in the speech is any kind of detailed sense of how the proposed intervention was likely to play out in practice. As Chilcot pointed out, there was inadequate planning for the post-combat phase of the intervention (‘Phase IV’ in the jargon), and what there was centred on an expected humanitarian emergency that never materialised. The UK narrative, perhaps because it nestled within the US one, also anticipated Iraqi acquiescence in the new order that had been imposed on them, when in practice the situation rapidly deteriorated into a widespread and multi-faceted insurgency. 

A couple of lessons for the policy-maker, then. First, never assume a linear narrative. The world won’t conform to your story – things will go wrong, the unexpected will happen, you’ll have to adapt. Second, a narrative needs to align with a body of supporting evidence and, as we learned quite quickly after the intervention, the principal evidential underpinning for the Iraq narrative, Saddam’s WMD, were absent. 

Third, it’s tempting to say with the benefit of hindsight that the WMD narrative didn’t land with the British public at the time, but (notwithstanding the very large demonstrations of 15 February 2003) it did, with 54% saying that intervention was the right decision and only 38% against. If, however, public opinion had gone the other way (and interestingly, people remembered it that way round a decade or so later), then it might – might – have signaled to its authors that something was awry with the policy. 

In that circumstance, when a narrative really isn’t landing with its intended audience, there’s a temptation to push on with the policy-maker’s preferred story arc regardless. Major policy initiatives have an in-built momentum of their own, and it takes a considerable injection of political capital to do an about-face, or cancel a project. 

An example in this category is HS2. For anyone unfamiliar with HS2, it’s a new high speed railway linking up London, the Midlands and the North, serving eight of Britain’s 10 largest cities. 

Photo by Albin Berlin on Pexels.com

The vision for HS2 goes something like this:  it will form a new backbone to the UK rail network, increasing capacity and linking up with other rail modernisation; it will spread jobs and opportunity across the country, driving regeneration; and it will be the low carbon option for long-distance travel within the UK. The policy-maker’s developed version of this narrative will no doubt involve portfolio, programme and project management on a massive scale, handling of the impact on local communities and the environment and the management of a very large number of stakeholders to ensure forward momentum.

For a controversial public policy initiative like HS2, there is inevitably an opposing narrative, which in this case pretty much rejects the Government’s vision in its entirety. Behind these counter-narratives are diverse groups and individuals, with a range of reasons for opposing the project. Where the two narratives collide becomes messy, and public policy has to decide the extent to which it accommodates the opposing narrative and adjusts its own. 

In this case, the Government sought to acknowledge the shortcomings in its own narrative (particularly concerning project management and cost overruns) up to the point when the final decision was made, accommodated opposing views to the extent that it said the project would be better managed in future, but it didn’t adjust the core vision in its essentials. The tension between the Government’s narrative and that of the project’s opponents seems likely to persist as HS2 moves into implementation, not least as the opposing view is imbued with significant emotion concerning lost habitats and disrupted lives. Ministers and policy officials, to say nothing of the policy’s opponents, will no doubt have to live with this for some time. 

Beyond the day-to-day realm of public policy, there’s a point where narrative solidifies into something else, something potentially dangerous for the public good: ideology. None of us are free of ideology – it’s the firmed up version of that bundle of stories we each carry round with us. But an ideology is hard to get out of. It’s moved from being a story into being a belief. It’s a narrative which only ever entertains the evidence that supports it, and if there is none, it’s not actually that bothered. Ideology in its keenest form, as found at the furthest ends of the political spectrum, is more likely to do harm than good. It is the enemy of pragmatism and adaptability. 

Worse, ideology attached to a single individual can lead to a cult of personality, and then how the narrative is told becomes more important than its substance. This is the stuff of demagogues and populists. 

Politicians are by definition ideological, but that doesn’t mean they are all ideologues – not by a long chalk. And the brave, principled politician is capable of breaking out of their ideology to deliver the public good. Civil servants, on the other hand, can never be ideological (except to recognise that they operate within the very broad ideological envelope of a Parliamentary democracy that eschews extremes). The Civil Service Code is unequivocal on this point. 

And the upshot of all this? 

As the policy maker, whether a Minister or an official, you should never be complacent about your narrative. Think about the multiplicity of things which could throw you off track, and the extent to which you might have become slave to a narrative that is simply wrong or doesn’t work. Ensure that, if you feel the narrative to be right, you have sufficient resource and political will to see it through. Really, really worry about how the story ends. And, like any wise person, be prepared to change your mind if it’s not working out. 

Every story has an author. Think about how you want to be remembered as the author of public policy. Did you write the unreadable shocker with thinly-written characters and nonsensical plot twists? Or did you write the timeless classic that people look back on reverentially and say, ‘Yes, that’s how it’s done’?

Finally, there’s a word that I haven’t yet touched on in this piece and that you probably expected me to introduce at some stage: truth. I’ve mentioned ‘evidence’ a few times, but not the closely-related word ‘truth’. A narrative anchored in the truth is clearly of greater worth in public policy than one that rests on the shifting sand of untruth. If the beginning of your story arc is false, or the aim it seeks to achieve illusory, then a public benefit – which, after all, is the principal objective of public policy – is unlikely to be achieved. 

The truth – or as close as we can get to it given the ebb and flow of human psychology, society and politics – is my subject next time. 

9 thoughts on “Long Story Short

  1. Great blog. How do we get this into the induction pack for new policy starters?
    Let’s hope we can all handle the truth.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, mmmisitjustme. I know induction can be varied in its quality – brilliant in some places, less so in others. Happy to help in any way I can!

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  2. I wonder what your reflections are on the way narratives change over time. Think about how the Brexit campaign started off and how it’s ended (we’ll have all the cards; easiest trade deal in history; Lancaster House; Chequers; no deal will be a good result). Similarly the Covid narrative is not static, and nor is the narrative about migration, asylum. Devolution and Human Rights are other areas where narratives have changed over time, quite significantly, and not necessarily wholly or even mainly because of a change in administration. For narratives to underpin policy and programmes with any degree of success they need to be properly owned and maintained, and the owner needs to accept responsibility for sustaining them in a consistent way. Too often, it seems to me, that fails to happen.

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  3. Roger, I guess I am a notch or two too junior to get to present the enticing fresh detail of vision-led forward-looking narrative, but I do get opportunities to speak and write about what is happening, and past events that have shaped this. This suits me fine as a once A-level modern historian! What interests me is to what extent a narrative driving a programme of change needs to root itself in past developments, and how far back into history it needs to reach. I have been told that I go too far in setting the historic context in presentations about change, but to me, relating the present and the proposed future to a robust sense of the past is vital, particularly for establishing a sense of wellbeing and logical intent, and to garner interest and discussion.

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    1. Hi, Walter. Thanks for your comment. And it doesn’t matter where you are in the hierarchy – if you’ve got inspiring things to say, as I know you have, then people will listen.

      I think your question about reaching into the past is a really important one. There have been occasions when I’ve presented on Chilcot to really young audiences who didn’t experience that time the way we did, and so I have to explain what a big deal the Iraq conflict was. It’s also fundamental to good decision-making to have the knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. Of course, it must be possible to overdo these things – and I probably have in some of my own talks – but I think it’s really important to establish a baseline from which to understand the present and build for the future. Your point about garnering interest is really important: what has happened in the past has a three dimensional feel to it, and therefore engages people. One aside: just because something hasn’t worked in the past doesn’t mean it won’t work in the future. I’m guessing that mostly it won’t, but circumstances change, so it’s always worth revisiting alongside the range of other options.

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