Narrative has been observed to be central to the policy process – constituting public policy instruments, persuading decision makers and the public, and shaping all stages of the policy process. This article distils useful policy advice, which can be employed by scholars and practitioners alike. We call attention to two potential communication pitfalls to which practitioners are likely to fall prey: (1) the knowledge fallacy, and (2) the empathy fallacy. We then focus our discussion on ‘intervention points’ where narrative can play an important role, drawing attention to recent narrative research, which provides the strongest basis for overcoming communication fallacies. Based on arguments presented here, policy actors can construct better narratives to accomplish their policy goals, while scholars can better understand how narratives are constructed and the intervention points where narratives might be observed and therefore studied.
There is plenty of science, philosophy, and literature pointing to the importance of narrative in human affairs. One way to understand the findings and arguments presented is that people, by nature, are inclined to impose meaning on the world and that when they do, they rely on information shortcuts (heuristics) to develop quick and easy emotional renderings of the world that fit with who they think they are and what they know. People’s preferred way of meaning-making is through story (see Jones et al, 2014b). The essence of these interdisciplinary findings is captured by Hardy:
For we dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative. In order to really live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future. (1968, 5)
If this is true of individuals, it should not be surprising that narrative also matters in public policy. Public policy is navigated by a system of actors who are vying for their preferred policy goals. Within this system, policy actors wield narratives to help achieve their goals, communicate problems and solutions, and citizens use them to communicate their preferences to policy elites, among other uses. However, much of this storytelling is governed by intuition, anecdote, and ad hoc theorising, which is not to malign policy actors – there is little else to go on.