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Why Shared Narratives Matter More Than Ever

¿Por qué las narraciones compartidas importan más que nunca?

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Don LenihanandDamian Carmichael|

This article was first published by Apolitical. Click here to read the original article.

Arguably the most over-used word in public policy is “narrative”. Everyone likes to bandy it about, from politicians and pundits to scholars and therapists. So, do we really need an explanation as to why narrative is also important for public deliberation? The answer is, more than ever.

new release from the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Dialogue and Deliberation shows how building “shared narratives” can help governments reframe and solve difficult policy issues, from the tensions between climate change and economy to the reform of electoral systems.

Here’s a snapshot of what the Group has to say.

Why Narrative Really is Important for Public Deliberation

Storytelling is a basic human skill born of a basic social need. People hear a good story once and remember it for the rest of their lives. A good story invariably “travels” with them. Literary devices, such as metaphor, dialogue and dramatic tension all help us confront the unknown and make sense of the complexity of the human experience.

Take the metaphor of war. It has been widely used in the Covid-19 pandemic, and not just for the evocative imagery it tends to conjure. The war on Covid-19 has provided us with roles and a script for viewing and responding to the crisis. We treat the virus as an “invisible enemy”. We answer the “call to duty”. The word alone gives order and meaning to a complex set of facts, values and priorities.

A shared narrative helps establish common ground on which participants in these processes can make progress on an issue.

Of course, in war governments assume new powers. And as we’ve seen, new conflicts can erupt between those who think, for example, that in the current emergency the state has the right to order citizens to socially distance and wear face masks and those who disagree. This is where compelling narratives can divide as well as unite people.

The Practice Group’s paper sees narrative building as an emerging opportunity for public deliberation (we’ve discussed the Group’s views on deliberation previously on Apolitical.) A shared narrative helps establish common ground on which participants in these processes can make progress on an issue.

What is Narrative Building?

Public deliberation processes call on participants to deal with issues objectively. They engage in careful reasoning that is supported by data and information and informed by knowledge and expertise. Conflicting values or interests are often a barrier, however, and can’t be resolved by evidence alone the way disputes over facts can.

One great example of this is the issue of climate change. Objectively, we know that to alleviate the problem, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, if many countries remain heavily dependent on coal, oil, and/or natural gas, a rapid reduction could throw their economies into a tailspin. Decision-makers thus struggle with how to “balance” concerns over the environment with concerns over economic stability and people’s livelihoods.

Finding that balance requires reliable data on the impact of new policies on weather patterns and the economy. Unfortunately, the facts and data available often aren’t clear or complete enough to define where exactly the balance lies. What is required therefore is judgement, which is where values-based narratives come into play.

In general, the public’s views on policy are usually grounded in a background story or narrative

Someone who puts a high value on jobs may be more willing to live with the risk of melting glaciers than someone who cares passionately about the loss of the world’s coral reefs. The first person may support a staged transition to renewable energy, while the second may want an immediate end to the use of hydrocarbons. Both may be drawing on the same studies and facts to arrive at completely different value judgements.

At face value, public deliberation provides little in the way of tools to resolve such tensions. Participants who disagree profoundly on values are often simply asked to sit down together, put aside their subjective interests and try to find a reasonable and fair accommodation. This is not only difficult but can widen already hostile divisions. Injunctions to merely “respect one another” do little to reconcile people’s deeply-held convictions.

The Practice Group’s paper argues that the gulf in values between citizens and the solution to bringing them closer together both involve narrative building. In general, the public’s views on policy are usually grounded in a background story or narrative. Typically, these are created by opposed groups of advocates who frame a narrative to support a specific interest or set of values and objectives that they want to promote and achieve.

Narrative building helps a diverse group of stakeholders recognise and understand the role that values play in their dispute and highlights the other objectives and values they share

A shared narrative, by contrast, is a story that opponents create together, from the bottom up, through a deliberative process. This requires a conscious effort to stand back and see the bigger picture.

The participants start by listening to each other’s stories. This not only builds trust, it clarifies how the subjective aspects of their experience — their values, interests and emotions — are intertwined with their positions.

Learning about these different experiences uncovers shared understanding and points of overlap between competing narratives. Thus, it builds bridges. Special techniques are used to align the stories around these points of contact in ways that everyone can accept.

While a shared narrative is not yet a solution to the policy issues (that comes later) it creates the common ground participants need to begin discussing how to mitigate risks or balance competing values in ways that are more likely to achieve respect and fairness.

Findings from the Study

The Practice Group’s paper uses three case studies to illustrate key techniques and challenges in building a shared narrative and summarizes the findings in five key points:

  1.  Shared narratives are built from the bottom up
  2.  Narrative building requires deliberation
  3. Truth, fairness, and respect are guiding principles of narrative building
  4. Deliberation takes both an internal and an external form
  5. While a shared narrative creates common ground, it does not solve all the problems

So, narrative building helps a diverse group of stakeholders recognise and understand the role that values play in their dispute and highlights the other objectives and values they share. The process is about informed compromise, respect and the successful accommodation of difference. It is a new way for public servants to put this ancient skill to work on the issues of our day. — Damian Carmichael and Don Lenihan 

The Practice Group includes government and civil society members from around the globe who share a deep interest in public deliberation. The Group was formed to promote the use of deliberation among OGP members. The narrative-building paper is Volume IV in The Deliberation Series and can be downloaded here.

 

Featured Image Credit: Unsplash

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