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Reimagining Government: how storytelling can change systems

19 July 2022

News and media


Stories are an essential part of the human experience and can be powerful agents of change – they can build empathy, shift mindsets, build connections, and help people to teach and learn. They are an essential part of the work of government in the 21st century, as part of efforts to allow a broader range of voices to shape government, and to enable and celebrate change. 

The second webinar of the ANZSOG/Centre for Public Impact Reimagining Government series for 2022 brought together three experts, chaired by CPI’s Thea Snow, to discuss how we can use storytelling to change entire systems, and respond to audience questions: Rachel Fyfe (Communications Manager, Dusseldorp Forum), Simon Goff (Partner & Global Managing Director, Purpose), Skye Trudgett (CEO, Kowa). 

The webinar began with a discussion of what storytelling could do that other methods could not and why storytelling was not taken seriously enough by many policymakers, both as a way to empower communities to contribute to policy, and to create the conditions for social change. 

Ms Trudgett said that stories were important because they could explore emotions and feelings and get to the crux of what was important to people and communities. 

“Some of the work we are doing in Victoria is with a community that has gone through trauma from fires and floods, as well as colonisation, and through their stories they can tell us what is in their trauma that has been brought out. Stories hold the voice of the people who are giving their stories and we receive it in that same context,” she said.  

“But what is required in reporting is something quite different, things like how many jobs have been created, or how many people are finishing school as a result of an initiative. The focus on numbers means we are really losing sight of why people are turning up, why these things are important.  

“We need to be thinking of storytelling and truth-telling as the foundation for reform. Research can be done but that doesn’t talk to what’s happening on the ground. Storytelling bypasses that challenge and talks about what is really going on.” 

Ms Trudgett said that consciously focusing on using stories when working with a community in Bourke, NSW, made the work more accessible than relying on numbers alone. 

“We were able to use conversations, and do things that were really visible, and collaborative, and maintain that accountability in place.” 

Ms Fyfe said that often governments were looking at success through an economic lens not a holistic one that took into account all the other lenses people needed to survive, and that was often a blocker to using storytelling to change systems. 

Mr Goff said the trend over the past twenty years was for the increased role of data, and the all encompassing move towards it, to suck up all the oxygen at the expense of more qualitative approaches, and approaches that involved community. 

“When everything is broken down to numbers and data, it loses meaning,” he said. 

“Where the work is multidisciplinary and you have individuals with different skillsets, the growth of data approaches makes it difficult. How do you find connective tissue, how do we find common goals around what we are trying to achieve on a project level?” 

Ms Trudgett said that stories were too often seen as secondary to, or less valuable than quantitative data. 

“No one can deny the emotional power of a story, but then it goes into that reporting piece and the response is ‘that’s lovely but where are the numbers, or it doesn’t fit into my evaluation framework.” 

“We have a responsibility to resist this requirement for numbers and centre what is actually going on for the community. If we can go past that reliance on numbers alone and find that healthy balance, we could build a really big evidence base of social change that others could learn from in a really engaging way.” 

Mr Goff said that people wanting to use storytelling needed to think about diverse content which could reach communities in different ways in a fractured information ecosystem. 

He said that some of the work his organisation had been doing around both climate change and  COVID-19 was done in an environment full of coordinated misinformation. 

“We need to think about the content and message of stories but also how we use trusted messengers in a way that connects with our audiences,” he said.  

Ms Fyfe said that changing policy on major issues like climate change required changing the narrative. 

She quoted non-profit consultant Brett Davidson as saying: “In order to achieve lasting systemic change we need to do more than to change a few policies. We need to shift the underlying system stories that help people to make sense of the world” and said this would need to include a conscious effort to increase the range of stories that were heard. 

Her organisation, the Dusseldorp Forum, works with communities on initiatives that redesign decision-making structures to give more control over resources to communities. 

Part of this has been working with CPI to help communities build their own storytelling infrastructure to help communities, to explore what good storytelling looks like, what gets in the way, and what’s needed to help tell stories that are complex and to highlight the need for systems change. 

“We have found stories are playing different roles at different levels of the system. They can be used to change the system, but also to understand, evaluate, and showcase the change that has occurred. We heard that stories change the system by helping people to build empathy, shift mindsets and help us understand the world in different ways. We find that sharing stories can also heal or transform people and build new connections.” 

More resources from the webinar are available on the CPI Reimagining Government microsite. The microsite also includes information about the other three webinars in 2022, as well as information on our Reimagining Government Community of Practice – which includes networking events and workshops. 

The ANZSOG/CPI Reimagining Government series began in 2020 as a response to the pandemic and 2022 sees the third series of webinars exploring how government can be reimagined to be more creative, more collaborative and better equipped to deal with the big challenges of the 21st century. 

The 2022 series is again allowing participants to listen to and learn from leading thinkers with academic and practitioner backgrounds. Each webinar will be highly interactive and will provide participants with ample opportunity to contribute their views via moderated discussion, case studies, and breakout rooms. 

The third webinar in the series, ‘How can governments learn from First Peoples knowledge systems?’ will be held on 23 September.