Building a successful political narrative

2009 Five Presidents George W. Bush, President...

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Political narratives have the power to make or break a government or a career. Think about the stories that exist today about Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton? Whatever we think of these people there is a lot of learning about the stories surrounding their rise and fall and this can influence how we go about creating successful political narratives.

Beginnings start with good political narratives:

  • John Kennedy inspired Americans to think of what they could do for their country.
  • Ronald Reagan offered a story of America riding tall in the saddle, not afraid to challenge the “evil empire”
  • In 1976, in the aftermath of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, Jimmy Carter presented a story of clean and morally unambiguous politics.
  • Bill Clinton told a good story during the 1992 campaign, convincing Americans that the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, was out of touch and that only he felt their pain.
  • George W. Bush told a good story in the wake of Clinton’s impeachment, casting himself as the man to restore dignity to the presidency and therefore to the country.

What these stories have in common is that they found a common language with the people and the story resonated with them and that these successful narratives had a precedence on perceptions and experiences, rather than facts.

How all this pans out in election victories in the UK is complex. Some say elections are won, others that elections are lost. The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Conservative story for the 2010 election was one of change, as was the Lib Dems’. However, neither made significant progress. Maybe people do not want change for change sake. They sometimes know what they want changed and other times can be convinced of change, but some change people do not want. A very successful narrative was seen in 2008 when Obama not only talked about change but embodied the change the country wanted to see.

so why do so many British politicians – and yes, I’m thinking here about Liberal Democrats – insist on giving us lists of policies instead of telling stories that would be so much more powerful? Neil Stockley

But not all stories are powerful. Remember the Tories ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking’? Well not that many people were and this maybe because the language they were using did not fit into modern Britain and did not demonstrate the change people wanted to see.

Using a common language has some advantages:

  1. People notice that the politician/party is attentive to their hopes and fears which helps to make them feel taken seriously.
  2. People notice that the politician/party understands and accepts their hopes and fears that they have been expressing. This gives them a feeling of security and trust.
  3. Language matching helps national messages spread easily. This is because people do not have to interpret what is being said and avoids messages being dismissed based on who it is said.

Just think of the ‘Big Society’ and how much difficulty the Conservatives had with it during the election. We are still debating what it is which misses the point of a national message and policy initiatives. So getting your narrative right is a key to success yet:

The public sphere is an energy field in which mixed interests and explanations of reality coexist despite deep contradictions (Postmodern Public Administration. Fox & Miller 1995)

An ideal political narrative is therefore one which utilises the multiplicity of narratives that citizens could choose in order to bring about change that they want. A master narrative which everyone buys into is impossible which is why politicians keep their messages vague e.g. Obama, to recruit as many as possible.

But is as many people as possible what we really want? When the Liberal Party won a massive landslide victory in 1906 the leadership worried that it would not be able to keep this level of support together; and they didn’t and the election became known as the success they never recovered from. But the leader of the Liberal Party used successful narratives and coined a phrase that changed a politics of a generation – ‘methods of barbarism’ (referring to the concentration camps in South Africa). It is too early to know if this will be the way of Obama with his skillful oratory.

Neil Stockley points out that you can have a political narrative but you cannot own it so it is open to interpretation and change. While you cannot own the narrative about you and your party, having an open dialogue with citizens and using the same language can help a political message. The priority should be to find a common language to describe what citizens’ want to change and begin to explore how those changes would affect their lives.

What is Collaborative Governance?

The Policy Consensus Initiative highlights some useful texts in collaborative governance such as the Practical Guide to Collaborative Governance & Training Manual. They have a useful outline of collaborative governance which is worth repeating:

What is Collaborative Governance?

Leaders engaging with all sectors—public, private, non-profit, citizens, and others—to develop effective, lasting solutions to public problems that go beyond what any sector could achieve on its own.

What results does it produce?

The best public solutions come from people working together on issues. Collaborative governance takes as its starting point the idea that working together creates more lasting, effective solutions.

  • Lasting—Solutions developed through collaborative governance won’t simply be undone in the next year or legislative session.
  • Effective—The collaborative governance approach ensures that the realities of the situation are considered and discussed; decisions are not made in a vacuum.
  • More buy-in—From the outset, all with a stake are involved in authentic ways; all have a role in the final agreement.

Why is it needed?

  • Accelerating change
  • Overlapping institutions and jurisdictions
  • Increasing complexity
  • A need to integrate policies and resources

How is this different from “government?”

“Governance” is the process by which public ends and means are identified, agreed upon, and pursued. This is different than “government,” which relates to the specific jurisdiction in which authority is exercised. “Governance” is a broader term and encompasses both formal and informal systems of relationships and networks for decision making and problem solving.

What does it take?

Collaborative governance requires three elements:

  1. Sponsor- an agency, foundation, civic organization, public-private coalition, etc. to initiate and provide support
  2. Convener/Leader- a governor, legislator, local official, respected civic leader, etc. with power to bring diverse people together to work on common problems
  3. Neutral Forum- an impartial organization or venue, etc. to provide and ensure skilled process managament

How does it work?

The System integrates the principles and network to assure an effective collaborative governance process:

  • Sponsors identify and raise an issue
  • Assessment is made on the feasibility for collaboration and who needs to be involved
  • Leader(s) convene all needed participants
  • Participants adopt this framework for addressing the issue
  • Conveners and participants frame (or reframe) the issue for deliberation
  • Neutral forum/facilitator designs and conducts a process to negotiate interests and integrate resources
  • Written agreement establishes accountability
  • Sponsors identify and raise an issue or opportunity that calls for a collaborative response

This collaborative governance system can work anywhere as long as several key principles are adhered to: transparency; equity and inclusiveness; effectiveness and efficiency; responsiveness; accountability; forum neutrality; and consensus-based decision making.

In Praise of AmericaSpeaks: Engaging citizens in participation with government

AmericaSpeaks21st Century Town Meetings® are different way of getting citizens to participate in a debate, a method of collecting ideas and themes and a way to produce policies. They state that these meetings are

engaging, meaningful opportunities for citizens to participate in public decision making… attempting to address the needs of today’s citizens and decision makers

… each meeting restores the balance of the “political playing field” by engaging hundreds or thousands of general interest citizens at a time, quickly summarizing citizen input and priorities, and widely disseminating the results through media coverage.

In these meetings, citizens engage around issues governments at all levels face, from public policy to land-use planning to public budgeting.  The use of these meetings is not limited to the public sector: they have been used by large non-profit associations, global leadership forums, and annual meetings for other organizations. A video of this process can be seen here:

This is a good model of engaging many citizens, sometimes thousands and sometimes all in one go. It gives an excellent model of how to achieve collaboration and partnership between citizen and state. Imagine if decisions were made in this country by this method. We may not like the result but we would know it came from a majority of people fully engaged in a professional process that was open to us. But then again, we may like the result? This is a different way of looking at how government works. A step towards collaborative governance.

A radically different approach to the spending cuts: A collaborative approach, a liberal approach

There is a contradiction in the Conservative approach. On one hand we have Dave telling us that it is our country and we need to have more of a say in how it operates. On the other we have George telling us what a mess our finances are in and that he needs to make some difficult decisions on our behalf. Imagine how different things may have looked if the government had taken Dave’s approach to the spending cuts.

In America they did just that and it serves as an example to us as opposed to this tired paternalistic Tory approach. In the USA, 3,500 Americans came together across 57 cities to discuss the nation’s finances in a day long Town Meeting. Liberals and conservatives, young and old, rich and poor, people of all races and ethnicities sat together in authentic conversation.

They used satellite and webcast link-ups connected cities across the country to create a truly nationwide conversation.  Participants were given the opportunity to discuss their greatest hopes for the future and their concerns about the economic recovery process. They were presented with 42 options developed along with the Our Budget, Our Economy National Advisory Committee. In addition to expressing preferences among the options, they were able to suggest new additional options.

The results looked something like this:

  • 85% of participants expressed support for reducing defence spending by at least 5% (which included 51% of participants who expressed support for a 15% cut)
  • 68% of participants expressed support for reducing all other Non-Defense spending by at least 5%
  • 62% of participants expressed support for reducing health care spending by at least 5%.
  • No options for reducing Social Security benefits received a majority of support.
  • 60% of participants expressed support for raising the cap on payroll taxes to 90%
  • 54% of participants expressed support for raising income taxes on those earning more than $1 million by five percent
  • 52% of participants expressed support for raising personal tax rates for the top two income brackets by at least 10%
  • 54% of participants expressed support for establishing a carbon tax
  • 50% of participants supported the establishment of a securities-transaction tax
  • No options for reducing deductions and credits received majority support
  • Participants were evenly divided about options presented to reform the tax code

The results were submitted to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform for its public meeting on Wednesday, June 30, 2010.

This is an excellent model for government collaboration with citizens. Giving power to the people, allowing people to have a real say, influencing the government that they essentially own. It is a world away from the approach taken by George. When it comes to difficult decisions, maybe he needs to think about letting go of the old tory ways and embrace the ‘new politics’?

In Praise of Citizen’s Parliament: A model for partnership working between state and citizen

Citizens Parliament in Australia has shown a good example of a way to get citizens involved in politics in a non-conventional manner. 150 citizens were convened to consider ways of improving the governmental system and they then presented their recommendations to parliament.You can watch a video of the process here:

What was successful was that they attracted wide publicity and engaged top government leadership. Most importantly though they created a positive experience for the participants and generated a sense of empowerment and enthusiasm about public policy and the political process. The Citizens Parliament allowed a large number of people to deliberate in individually facilitated small groups which used electronic voting technology to instantaneously show trending and final policy preferences.

This project did not focus on a single issue but encouraged participants to develop ideas on the general theme of reform government so that it could better serve people’s needs. However, the application is much wider than a repetition of this in the UK. This is a potential model for collaboration and partnership between citizens and government and used in the right way can foster empowerment for many on many different issues.

The Big Society is growing into something else (but the Tories other plan will kill it)

Cameron’s Big Society took a good idea and it was then grown into something very strange. It is now supposed to thread through all of the government’s policies. However, what seems to have escaped his attention is that the 2 main themes of this government are incompatible and the other will undermine his Big Idea.

Cameron knows that there is a wealth of experience, knowledge and skills out there which are not being tapped into. He knows that there are many people who want to get involved in making their communities better. He knows that the current government system can get in the way of this. So he wanted a system that tapped into this. One that could listen more. One that gave people more of what they wanted if they were prepared to lead the way.

It is a big idea for a civil society – hence big society. The problem is that this has now grown into a distinction between the Big Society not Big Government i.e. Labour. Well a Big Society may need a Big Government if that is the people’s will and have so many ideas it needs a Big Government to realise those ideas. So this message confuses an essential concept of the Big Society. What he means is Big Society not Big Bureaucracy, which is different.

It has also grown into Cameron preaching to people about what they should be doing with their spare time and that they need to step up. The point of the Big Society is that there are incentives for people to do more in their communities and that the Big Society Government will change to enable them to do more of this. Telling people what to do is the opposite of the whole point of a bottom up approach. This is a continuation of the paternalistic tendencies of the Tories to tell people what is good for them. It also stigmatises those who may not be able to give more to their communities at a particular time for whatever reason. They either have power in their community or they don’t. A change in the relationship between state and citizen requires a change in thinking and if there was a change then it would not need someone telling people what to do.

And then there are the spending cuts. There was an attempt by the Treasury to ask people how to save money, but it is not about saving money, this is about cutting money. The Big Society is a bottom up approach to developing society. It is about letting people have more power and more say. The spending cuts will show people they don’t have power and don’t have a say where the axe falls. Many people will feel powerless and powerless people act powerless. How many powerless people will feel like using this new power to improve their communities? The two are incompatible and the spending cuts undermine the bottom up efforts and will dampen any enthusiasm to take up the offer of having more power. Which will probably result in Cameron preaching to people about what they should be doing.

More evidence Collaborative Governance is becoming an inevitability

Collaborative Governance is a term which has been gaining more popularity in recent years although remains on the periphery of national debate. So why is Harvard University looking at preparing students for a change to collaborative governance?

The benefits of collaborative governance are potentially huge as I have written about recently such as reducing costs, gaining a better ideas and using better expertise and knowledge. However, it also has a moral element in that it opens up the power structures to the people who will be subjects of the decisions of this power. Something which is dear to any liberal’s hearts.

So while this debate may be in its infancy with many never having heard of it, I find it very interesting to see Harvard University asking

What, and how, should we teach our students (both degree and non-degree students) to equip them for useful roles in structures of collaborative governance?

They go on to attempt to outline what could potentially be taught in the paper Donahue, John. 2004. “On Collaborative Governance.” Corporate Social Responsibilty Initiative Working Paper No. 2. Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard University which can be found here.

However, they are not alone in this change of focus as it is part of a larger movement to more proactive services where citizens are partners with the government. As part of this movement there is now a University Network of Collaborative Governance

The Network is made up of forward-thinking centers and programs that engage in service and scholarship to enable citizens and their leaders to engage in dialogue, discussion, problem solving, and conflict resolution around public issues.

More can be read about the network here.

The secret to winning elections (lessons by Gisela Stuart???)

They say Tony Blair had it and because of it David Cameron considered him unbeatable. But the magical ingredient of electability disappeared eventually and he would have been beaten had be not been beaten by his own party. So we can only assume that electability can come and go. This is either because it is something intrinsic within him that at that particular time resonated with the electorate and then later didn’t, or it was something he was doing that later he was no longer doing.

If we believe it is an intrinsic value within him then we will always seek someone who possess’ that magic ingredient. If we believe it was something he was doing, then anyone can learn the skills of electability. To understand if we are able to learn the skills we can look at exceptions to the rule during an election and see what we can glean from this.

During the General Election there was generally a swing away from the Labour Party towards the Conservative Party. Yet Gisela Stuart managed to buck this trend in one of the top 12 seats the Tories were targeting. So why was this?

For a start she was a popular MP with a record of defying Labour whips. She began the campaign with a programme of questionnaires and ‘manifesto meetings’ for voters to tell Stuart’s team about their concerns. From this she drew up a ‘local manifesto’ that became the focus of her campaign and paid virtually no attention to the national Labour message. She recruited a volunteer team who were urged to bring in more friends to help and used whatever idea came from this team. You can view her leaflet here. This strategy has not gone unnoticed by Ed Miliband.

Lessons for the campaign team:

  • Gisela essentially formed an alliance with the electorate by engaging the community which allowed the team to learn from the electorate about what they wanted and avoided a struggle over definitions of the problems
  • Her team viewed themselves as ‘essentially able’ – able to influence the election despite the circumstances and so ideas and energy were used to good effect
  • The team had clear, specific and attainable goals which with the help of volunteers were just about achievable in the time available

Lessons for MPs:

  • She was seen as active and openly influential
  • She was seen as competent, hopeful and confident
  • She focused on the here and now

Where you stand affects your view. Gisela believed that the party she belonged to was unpopular because they did not have the same starting point as those she wanted to vote for her, so distanced herself from it. She created a new starting point by forming an alliance/coalition/relationship with voters (call it what you will). A quick look at what Tony Blair did with the Labour Party was similar, as was David Cameron’s.

And this is the most important lesson in learning electability:  People vote for those who accept the voters definition of the problem. This is why listening is seen as so important but why so many fail to actively listen to the electorate.

The Times had an interesting story recently called ‘If you don’t like the voters, they won’t like you’ which pretty much sums it up:

After 1997 Conservative politicians knew what they were supposed to say, the boxes they needed to tick. And they said it, they ticked the boxes. But this didn’t mean they really understood, or quite believed, what they were saying. They would use phrases such as “I know we seemed out of touch”, rather than “I agree we were out of touch”. Many of the words Mr Cameron later used about changing the party were being spoken from the moment of the 1997 defeat, but the sentiment wasn’t the same at all. The Labour leader’s speech yesterday reminded me very much of those early Tory speeches. The more this week that Mr Miliband has said that he gets it, the less I have believed that he does.

The Suffolk Virtual Council threatens democracy and undermines the Big Society

The Big Society is here and people are trying to understand what it is and what it means. In the Tory Party they are yet to decide for themselves despite being the inventors and implementers of the policy. At first there was the easycouncil in Barnet which is about as far from the Big Society as you can get as it has no function to create a sense of community action or spirit. Now there is the virtual council in Suffolk proposing to outsource all services with them suggesting that “the concept of the ‘big society’ [is that] communities and individuals [should] do more for themselves, so that they are less reliant on government services”.

The contradictions inside the same party are one thing but there something else which is more worrying. Outsourcing services may be able to foster a community spirit of collaboration but it has a greater chance of not doing so as this is new ground for governments and businesses, but it has serious implications for democracy and accountability.

The local council will set the fee it is willing to pay for a service and go with whoever is able to provide the services for that price, despite how well they are able to really meet the need of the local people. The failures of services are then placed on the service providers and others involved in service delivery and implementation rather than the local council.

Even if there is collaboration between service providers, citizens and other social players, ultimately the local council can wring their hands clean of mistakes and problems as they are only the commissioner and can look for another provider. The problem with this approach is that it denies those involved in policy implementation the flexibility to address specific local circumstances and needs as policy itself continues to be set by the local council (or even central government).

With the council setting the agenda and then asking others to meet it means that there is a clear democratic deficit as those who have the responsibility for implementing the services have little influence over the direction or content of the policies they are implementing. I am not sure this is what was originally meant by the Big Society and it certainly is not what a Liberal Society is as it reduces public accountability.

My vision of the Liberal Society is one where citizens are treated as equals important in the development and implementation process of services which will increase the democratic accountability as you are collaborating directly with government agencies. The state should be reformed to allow for this partnership to flourish, giving power back to where it belongs, with politicians remaining responsible for the effective and appropriate use of power. It is about being less reliant on government services but in the sense that we are working with government services as partners to identify and meet need rather than relying on them to do this.

This outsourcing  project is a potentially major threat to the movement towards collaborative governance as it could undermine genuine efforts to fundamentally change the power relationship between state and citizen.

In Praise of the Daily Mail: Finding strengths in the Lib Dems

The Lib Dems have for a long time fought for a political narrative to be understood by the people. Strangely it seems the Daily Mail understands this narrative and sees a change in conservative ranks – a libdemification of the Tories? I can only assume this is a good thing if this is happening but worth pointing out that the Lib Dems have a chance to spell out a unique message and position in British Politics and now even the Daily Mail are listening:

Are there any ­proper Tories in this Government? Maybe I should be pinning my hopes on Nick Clegg, said by some to be a closet ­Conservative. Quite a few of those who call themselves Tories are beginning to resemble Lib Dems. On Tuesday evening I listened to the universities minister, David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts, on BBC2’s Newsnight sounding blithely unconcerned about the difficulties of middle-income earners, who will spend most of their adult lives paying off their student loans under new Coalition proposals. Mr Willetts used once to be described as a Thatcherite.


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