Translating research through stories

The academic field of policy studies has generally been attributed to the pioneering work of Harold D. Lasswell. In the 1950s, Lasswell proposed a new vision for political science, in which scholars didn’t just seek to resolve issues that were theoretically interesting but empirically insignificant. Rather, engaged scholarship should be the ultimate goal.

As part of this, Lasswell urged scholars to put their expertise to use in the furtherance of democratic values. This meant drawing on inter-disciplinary knowledge to provide targeted policy advice. It also meant an ability to translate complex concepts in simple terms for lay audiences. Fundamentally, it meant that political scientists should draw on their knowledge to influence public policy. In Lasswell’s ultimate ambition, political scientists that didn’t engage in public policy would be ‘rare as unicorns’.

In the half-century since Lasswell’s formulation of the ‘policy scientist of democracy’, policy studies have produced several theories and frameworks to account for how policy is made. From these, we can infer several lessons about the way in which public policy can be influenced. One of the key insights is the importance of stories and narratives to the policy process. Indeed, several major writers in policy studies (including people like Maarten Hajer, Dvora Yanow, Rod Rhodes, and Claudio Radaelli) would agree that stories and narratives have a fundamental role to play in shaping how public policy is made.

So, what then is a ‘story’? As usual, the policy literature does not provide a clear answer. For many, a story is a way in which different people communicate their interpretation of a particular social problem. At the same time, others argue that stories need to have defined structural elements. These include:

  • Setting: Features of the policy area that are particularly relevant (i.e. geography, laws, structure of the economy, etc.)
  • Characters: Those that stand to benefit or lose from a particular policy
  • Plot: The ways in which different events (or characters) are linked together
  • Moral: The solution to the problem, or the ‘call to action’.

Stories are particularly important insofar as they have a ‘sense-making’ function. That is, they convey meaning. Given the inherent uncertainty and complexity of policy problems, no individual actor is capable of understanding those problems in their entirety. As Herbert Simon once argued, the rationality of policymakers is limited. Because of this, people need to tell stories as ways of simplifying a complex social and political world. Whether the story is ‘true’ or not doesn’t really matter. Rather, what is more important is the ability of the story to generate sense and meaning.

However, the telling of stories is only half the picture. To fully understand how stories may be influential, we need to also explore how they are received by others. Again, policy scholarship has several insights here. The key thing to point out is that stories will only influence another person where that story is compelling or acceptable by that other person.

There are several relevant factors here. First, the story must be cognitively plausible. In other words, it must ‘seem right’. Trust is also important – if the storyteller is not seen as trustworthy, their story is likely to be less compelling. Further, interests come into play. A person is more likely to accept (and act on) a story where it allows them to meet some objective.

Indeed, these factors have played out in my PhD research into the influence of consultants on public policy. In my project, I have compared the stories told by two separate consultancies – McKinsey & Co. and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). McKinsey’s story was generally accepted by policymakers in my case study, while BCG’s was largely rejected. I attribute this to both the form of the story told, as well as the extent to which the narratives were compelling.

Such arguments align well with evidence emerging from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Neuroscientist Lera Boroditsky has shown how language has a fundamental role to play in shaping how people perceive their reality. This means that the way in which they conceptualise the world is fundamentally shaped by the words that they use. Likewise, Psychologist Uri Hasson has shown how processes of meaning-making (as conveyed through story) influence cognitive functions.

Influencing the policy process can be difficult. However, it can be made easier by careful consideration of the nature of the narrative you want to convey, and the way in which that narrative might be received by policymakers.