The other end of the telescope

No, not an astronomy blog, but one that builds on my last two pieces. I want to explore how narrative and truth in public policy play out with the citizen in the context of the current Covid crisis. And to do so, let me introduce you to Julie. 

Julie is a composite character drawn from quite a number of real world and virtual interactions I’ve had or witnessed in recent weeks. She is an ordinary person. She just wants to get on with her life, uninterrupted by the changing tides of national and international events. She’s concerned primarily for her own well-being and that of her family and friends. She wants to be in control of her life. 

Julie is the point where public policy is enacted. It exists, in large measure, to serve her. She is the person at the other end of the telescope from political and Civil Service policy makers in Government. And she has found the current crisis particularly difficult to get her head around. 

At the outset, and all things considered, she was pretty happy to go along with lockdown. Things had been on a reasonably even keel till then, with just the usual ups and downs of a normal life. When the goal posts were massively shifted by the global pandemic, she was fearful, and therefore willing to go along with pretty much anything the Government told her to do. Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives made perfect sense to her. 

Since those early days of the crisis, though, Julie has become increasingly concerned. I’m not going to get into the whole history of test and trace, the timing and administration of lockdown (and subsequent regional lockdowns), the terrible and tragic death toll in the UK and how it compares internationally, the Swedish model versus the rest or even the Barnard Castle episode. Rather, I want to explore how Julie is feeling and thinking. 

On the one hand, she is reasonably confident that the NHS has got her back, and that of her friends and family. Generally speaking, she trusts doctors. And yet she is struggling to manage the various flows of information that enter her world.

To begin with, she doesn’t really know anyone who’s had Covid-19. She knows high profile people have had it, with serious consequences – not least Boris Johnson – but in her personal circle there’s nobody. She wonders why this is.

She can’t square the various rules: six outside, but how many is it in a pub or restaurant, a football ground, a passenger aircraft or a theatre? She hears various rumours about the virus, some of which reflect our emerging knowledge about its transmission and impact, some of which are conspiracy hypotheses or misinformation.

All this is reaching Julie through passing conversations and through conventional and social media. As she glances at her smartphone during the course of the day, she is drawn into an endless stream of opinion about the crisis, some well-informed, some appearing to be well-informed and much completely misinformed. 

She’s not sure which institutions to trust. No-one around her has anything good to say about any of them, except perhaps the NHS. She knows little of how they work, and she’s heard like everyone else that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. She’s developed her own, institutional version of ‘cancel culture’. 

Photo by Mike Chai on Pexels.com

And so there she sits at the centre of her personal universe, her life largely local but now docked with a regional, national and global event. There’s too much happening, too much going through her mind, and rational thought is suffocated by unease. To paraphrase the subtitle of William Davies’ Nervous States, feeling has taken over her world. Julie doesn’t really understand what’s going on, what to believe and what she should do.

What lessons to learn?

At the deepest and broadest level, we need as a nation to equip people to make sense of situations like this – where to look for information, whether to trust it or not, what to expect from public institutions. We need to help people understand the difference between the Office of National Statistics and a conspiratorial online post; and teach critical thinking in its own right, so that individuals are alive to logical fallacies rather than prey to them. Julie doesn’t need to become an epidemiologist or virologist to understand the situation better, but she does need help triaging the flood of information. 

As I argued in my previous blog, we need also to reassert the primacy of evidence over narrative. Boris Johnson sought perhaps to do this with his 12 March statement about ‘levelling’ with the British public. Only a week later, though, narrative was back, trumping evidence: ‘I do think, looking at it all, that we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks. And I am absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country’.

We need to rebuild the trust people have in our great institutions, including Government. There are some pretty monumental, democracy-underpinning babies that might get thrown out with the bathwater if populist scepticism were taken to its natural conclusion. At the same time, these institutions can’t just repackage themselves and hope nobody notices that the substance is unchanged – they need to reform, and demonstrably so. 

Part of this institutional reform is about engaging with ordinary people to become part of their lives in ways which are seen as supportive rather than overbearing and distant. Focus groups and surveys are the usual avenues these days, but they only skim the surface of how the citizen feels over extended periods of time.

There is something much more fundamental that the policy maker needs to understand, about the visceral nature of many people’s often difficult journey through life. To get to the heart of this, they need to connect with the community, with respect and without patronising, meeting people, shopping where they shop, eating where they eat, going where they go. If you regularly take the bus, for example, you might begin to get a sense of the rhythms and challenges of people’s lives, and those impressions need to live in the policy-maker’s head back in the office.* The policy-maker might be from an ordinary background themselves, and well understand the issues, but they need to nurture that connection, and sometimes it requires an active effort to do so.

Photo by Jakob Scholz on Pexels.com

It’s almost certainly too late for these steps either to happen or to have an impact in this crisis. The Government has sought a reset through the introduction of tiers, but it’s unlikely it’s made much difference to Julie’s appreciation of the situation. Like the rest of the crisis, though, it has served to underscore the need for Government to forge a new relationship with the citizen. It can’t be an in-group, wary of and distant from an out-group of ordinary people. It needs a mature dialogue with its citizenry, not just three part messages, essential as they are (when they’re the right three parts). And if it can’t always give Julie what she wants, it needs to explain why it hasn’t been able to do so, not as a parent explains to a child, but as an adult treats its peer. 

Of course Julie’s just one of 68 million people in the UK, and each is different – in terms of protected characteristics, family history, socio-economic backdrop, regional setting, state of well-being and so on. This isn’t about finding a single template Government needs to serve – it’s about understanding the diversity of a modern liberal democracy, helping it through this crisis, facilitating a transition to whatever the new normal will be and ensuring we’re better prepared for the next time something goes badly wrong. 

When Julie looks through the telescope now, it’s all too often the wrong way round; she finds it hard to discern how public policy is working for her. When the policy-maker looks through the telescope, it has to be the right way round. It has to magnify the citizen’s needs and see them in sharp focus. The moment when Julie appears as a barely visible, indistinct, insignificant figure, is when things begin to go badly wrong. 

Julie isn’t an inconvenience to policy makers, a real world intrusion into theoretically pure policy. She should be the reason they do what they do, and why they should want to do it well.

*All of the foregoing, of course, within Government social distancing guidelines.

11 thoughts on “The other end of the telescope

  1. Great article Roger. I wonder if we understand what our role in being a citizen is. I am not thinking Starship Troopers but should Julie have a sensible understanding of how our nation works so we can have a decent chance in an evidence based approach being the first port of call for most people. I have always thought this should start at school.

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    1. Thanks, Iain. That was really what I was getting at. In writing the blog post, I did some basic research on the teaching of thinking skills at school, and there are options, but as far as I can tell it’s not a core curriculum subject. I feel it should be.

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  2. Thanks again Roger. Again I can’t agree more that we can’t have great policy without society being involved, with the problem the policy is trying to tackle, the options and choices to tackle it and then the final conclusion. Defence of the realm is a great case in point. But it’s not just in our education. Whither a citizens assembly of “Julie”s” for example. We tend to think policy is for the elites.

    On the evidence versus narrative I have a slightly different emphasis. You need narrative and evidence but good (or bad) policy in itself delivers nothing. Great communications of the policy and its rationale is key and then so is a “command and control” – or better orchestration – system between central government and local services and local people. Our confused communications and gap in being able to deliver policy in Julie’s neighbourhood to support the messaging is my biggest lessons to date from COVID. Solid policy well delivered is better than great policy not. That’s when trust breaks down when we say and can’t do. Keep them coming.

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  3. Roger, perhaps the challenge is that politicians become policy makers only through success in the democratic process, and they seek to maximise their tenure as policy-makers through future democratic elections. Democracy for politicians is only a highly competitive process, like private sector activity at Trump Towers, in which presentation and perception is as much a factor as lived reality. You make a neat observation about the sudden lurch in the PM’s rhetoric from ‘levelling with the public’ back to emotive narrative – is this simply multi-tasking, juggling the need to inform and his desire to be a re-electable leader? 

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    1. Thanks, Walter – and my apologies for not responding sooner (too much time glued to my phone the past few days for some reason). You make a very good point about the difference between politicians and officials as policy makers. Isobel Hardman is interesting on the nature of current UK politics in her book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians (I confess I haven’t read it all!), in which she suggests that there are far fewer people in Parliament these days with ‘real world’ life experience than would have been the case, say, just after the War. Maybe that carries through into a ‘marketing’ mindset – what counts is selling something to the public – rather than a ‘doing’ outlook.

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  4. You write beautifully.
    Logical fallacies and cognitive biases are my pet interest. I like your interpretation a lot.
    I would add that part of the problem here could be Johnson’s incapacity for critical thinking and detail. He seems incapable of any number based analysis – any clear interpretation.
    Even supposing he could usefully analyse the data presented to him he is in trouble. As a populist he is over a barrel simply because “I don’t know”, “we can’t” and “it is going to be harder, worse and take more effort than you think” cannot be said convincingly by a man who glibly promises stars.
    The sad irony for Johnson is this: Given Johnson’s braggadocio as scholar of the classics he still can’t spot his own elephantine hubris.

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    1. I’m very grateful for your kind comments, Gerard. I’ve tried to steer clear of personalities in the blogs so far, but I knew I’d be drawn into it eventually! So yes, I wonder to what extent Johnson is equipped, given his background, to process data effectively into policy, though I don’t know to what degree that also applies to his close advisers (and of course his scientific advisers are just that: scientific – not policy – advisers). In talking about how the media promotes the public misunderstanding of science, Ben Goldacre is pretty unequivocal in his book Bad Science, where he states “My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour’. I wonder then to what extent this might apply to politics as much as it does to the media.

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  5. I agree with almost everything that has been said above, but I do worry that, while I support the ideas about how to generate greater connection between policy makers and the world of Julies, we are past the point where we can achieve the outcome that you desire, and which I support. Even if the policy maker’s message was perfect, and the channels for engaging with the public were properly in place, in today’s world, those communications would be competing with a plethora of alternative facts presented by libertarians, conspiracy theorists, and cranks which are obtaining huge bandwidth on social media, and indeed in parts of the conventional media (Washington Post, Fox News, Daily Express anyone?). Human nature being what it is, many people are susceptible to simple, plausible conspiracy theories which create targets for blame, than the more nuanced messages that policy makers inevitably have to construct. I don’t, to be honest, know if there will ever be a solution to this.

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    1. I have the same fears, Richard, which was what led me to write the blog. But we have to try. I think this is a little like digital, in which you get 20-25% digital natives, 5-10% of people who will never get it, and the rest are reachable if you have a plan to reach them. Translated into the world of Julies, there’ll be 20-25% who understand the need to challenge narratives with evidence, 5-10% who are stuck in the mad world of conspiracy hypotheses (I refuse to call them theories!) and the rest who might be brought into the rational camp with sufficient effort. For the time being, I’m going glass half full on this, but I can see why many might conclude that the glass is in fact half empty.

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