To Change the Policy, You Have to Change the Story

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Screen shot 2014-01-22 at 3.21.00 PM

Everybody who does advocacy knows this on some level, but I thought this description from Deborah Stone’s paper “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas” made this exercise clearer for me, and helped me sort out some issues I care about.

If you look at the upper right hand corner of the chart, there are troubles that are considered to have unintended accidental causes – stuff that just happens without human fault, or that people don’t think about assigning blame for.

Policy advocacy is about telling a causal story that pushes the popular understanding of problems from that corner of the box out into one of the other corners.

If you’re trying to change a policy, you’re trying to tell a story about why a problem people think is unintended and accidental actually is an issue that can be corrected by government policy change.

If you’re trying to protect a status quo policy, you can’t allow a causal story to become popularized where the problem is characterized as the result of intended and purposeful action. You have to fight that story by pushing the problem into one of the weaker categories.

Nothing extremely insightful here, but it’s a helpful exercise for thinking through policies you want to change, and what the reigning stories are that are being told about them.

To give a quick example, my friends at Streetsblog have been engaged in a years long campaign to change the story about car collisions, where instead of being understood as “accidents” that nobody can do anything about, they’re really “traffic violence” where motorists who kill pedestrians should be tried for manslaughter instead of getting $150 tickets, as is the case in New York City.

What are some status quo policies you think may be locked in place by bad causal stories?

This entry was posted in Miscellany, Transportation.

3 Responses to To Change the Policy, You Have to Change the Story

  1. Gloria McVeigh says:

    Oh, so many! Poverty is one because of something in human nature that wants to believe we’re better than someone, anyone else. Struggling families are hard to blame, so the “welfare queen” myth must be created to maintain the status quo of privilege. In healthcare reform advocacy, I recognize my effort to unearth human stories to move them from casual to fixable. As long as they stay hidden, they reinforce the status quo. Coverage of pre-existing conditions is one example. Before I started promoting ObamaCare I had no idea the millions of Americans who’d been denied healthcare for long-term (expensive) conditions like diabetes. Now that we understand the lifestyle habits that contribute to adult-onset diabetes, it’s easy for those looking for stories to reinforce the status quo to blame diabetics. “The problem is characterized as the result of intended and purposeful action.” So my job is to push it into one of the “weaker” categories. This post is worthy of deeper consideration. Thanks, Jon.

  2. Jon Geeting says:

    Glad you found this useful Gloria! Here’s a link to the full paper:

  3. Gloria McVeigh says:

    Thank YOU for the upgraded graphic today.