Once upon a bureaucrat: exploring the role of stories in government

Thea Snow

What role can stories play in supporting people-centred policymaking and place-based reform?

6 March 2024

When you think of a profession associated with stories, what comes to mind? Journalist, perhaps? Or author? Maybe, at a stretch, you might think about a filmmaker. But I would hazard a guess that “public servant” would unlikely be one of the first professions that come to mind. However, recent research suggests that we should be thinking more deeply about the connections between stories and government.

Since 2021, the Centre for Public Impact, in partnership with Dusseldorp Forum and Hands Up Mallee, has been exploring the role of storytelling in the context of place-based systems change work. Our first report, Storytelling for Systems Change: Insights from the Field, focused on the way communities use stories to support place-based change. Our second report, Storytelling for Systems Change: Listening to Understand, focused more on how stories are perceived and used by those in government who are funding and supporting community-led systems change initiatives.

To shape these reports, we have spent the last few years speaking to community members, collective impact backbone teams, storytelling experts, academics, public servants, data analysts, and more. Here’s some of what we’ve heard.

How are stories being used by governments?

In our most recent report, Listening to Understand, we heard that stories support those working in government to deepen their understanding of the impact of policies and programs on people and communities. For example, a former local government chief executive in the UK was involved in developing accommodation for people experiencing homelessness, and didn’t understand why it wasn’t at capacity. She took the time to speak to people who were experiencing homelessness and hear their stories. They explained that the accommodation wouldn’t accept their pets, and for many of these people, their pets were their most treasured companion. As a result, the facility changed their policy, and uptake increased significantly.

We also heard that stories can be used to influence decision-makers. A public sector executive said, “Storytelling invokes empathy; factsheets don’t do this.” The emotive nature of stories is both a strength and a risk: a strength because of the way that it can help people in positions of power connect at a human level to the impact of programs and policies; a risk because it is not rational or desirable to make a decision based on a single story.

We learned that it is becoming more common in government for stories — particularly from people with lived experience — to inform policy design. This is becoming increasingly common in the health, disability and mental health sectors, where patient and consumer stories are shaping the design, evaluation and governance of services. However, we also heard that we still need some mindset shifts for this practice to become mainstream. Deidre Mulkerin, Director General of the Queensland Department of Safety, Seniors and Disability Services, noted, “To privilege and honour lived experience means making space for it. It means turning down the volume on traditional tools and turning up the volume of lived experience.”

These insights build on what we heard in our first report, Insights from the Field. In that phase of work, we spoke to communities leading place-based system change initiatives. We learned that stories can be a very effective measurement, evaluation, and learning tool to help people in government understand change in these contexts.

We also heard about the power of stories to change systems and the importance of people in government recognising stories as a lever for change in their own right. Stories change systems by supporting individuals to shift how they see themselves, their communities, how they relate to others, and what they believe they are capable of doing.

The barriers to stories

We also wanted to understand what gets in the way of stories being listened to and understood by those in government. While much effort and conversation centres around telling better stories, this only focuses on the supply side. What about the demand side? What would it take to create better listeners in government?

The strongest barrier that emerged was the perceived superiority of quantitative data over stories. Frances Martin, Director of Service Development at Our Place, described being struck by “the perceived inferiority of stories as a source of information.” The people we spoke to offered many reasons for this, but much of it turned on the idea that numbers are seen as objective, while stories are seen as subjective. As Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig explain in their book Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning:

“…the persuasive power of stories has contributed to their delegitimisation among the modes and models of rationality that have grounded Western democratic norms of evidence and public reasoning, norms consolidated in the Enlightenment, and rooted in rationalistic, positivist, and empiricist traditions.”

However, despite this apparent tension between scientific and narrative methods, many acknowledged the importance of “interweaving” data and stories rather than seeing them as dichotomous. It was pointed out that blending different forms of evidence enriches insights and is a skill that more people in government would benefit from.

Our listening sessions also surfaced additional barriers that can prevent stories being heard, listened to, and understood. These included:

  • Skills deficit. People in government don’t feel empowered or skilled to work with stories.
  • The efficiency imperative. The drive for efficiency in the public service sits in tension with “storylistening”, which requires a long-term investment in building authentic relationships and trust. It also takes time to listen deeply.
  • The desire for certainty and clarity. Stories don’t give you “an answer” in the way that quantitative data can, and many people we spoke to felt that they are required to have a neat answer.
  • Fear. Some people we spoke to shared a reluctance to ask for stories from community members because they will feel compelled to ensure that the story translates into change and action. However, they don’t always feel they have the agency to make that happen.

Elevating stories

Finally, we wanted to understand what can be done to elevate the roles of stories in government: how can we create audiences who are more able and willing to embrace the role of stories as a tool to help them understand and drive systems change?

Across both reports many ideas emerged, including:

  • Investing in ethnographic skills for public servants. There are some powerful examples of ethnography being used in a government context in the UK, both in central government, where Policy Lab has used ethnographic approaches to inform policymaking, and in Wigan, where Donna Hall worked with anthropologist Robin Pharoah to train all staff in ethnographic techniques.
  • Bringing together data and story people. The gap between “story” and “data” people in government makes it hard to blend insights well. To narrow this gap, training in mixed methods or integrated approaches to evidence might be beneficial, as well as embedding data experts in local environments. An example of this is Scotland’s Local Intelligence Support Team.
  • Creating dedicated storytelling and storylistening spaces. We know telling stories isn’t always easy. For people to be willing to tell their stories, people in government need to think deeply about how to create safe spaces for stories to be told. As Digital Stories Canada explains, “The quality of the ‘container’ that’s created has a big impact on the kinds of stories that can unfold within it, and the quality of the experience for both the storytellers and story listeners.”

A moment for stories

In an increasingly complex and polarised world, we believe that stories have an important role to play in government and communities. Stories deepen understanding of challenges, opportunities, and potential solutions. Stories make space for tension and ambiguity and resist government’s tendency to impose a logic of legibility. As Hannah Arendt has said, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”

Effective storylistening and narrative skills will be an essential part of driving forward the current Federal Government’s commitment to building more community partnerships in order to drive place-based reform. We need to invest in these so that a decade from now, if someone were to ask you to name a profession associated with stories, public service would be sitting much higher on the list.

Thea Snow is the Director of the Centre for Public Impact in Australia and New Zealand where she works with governments, public servants and a diverse network of changemakers to reimagine government so that it works for everyone. Thea’s experiences span the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. She has worked as a commercial lawyer, a public servant and, prior to joining CPI, worked at the UK’s innovation foundation, Nesta.

Image credit: peshkov/Getty Images

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