Why policy narrative matters: effective government responses to COVID-19

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  • Published Date: 20 October 2020

Storytelling in public policy matters when communicating policy decisions. How can policy makers craft compelling narratives to influence policy success?

At a glance

A paper in Policy Design and Practice, by Professor Michael Mintrom and Ruby O’Connor, argues narrative has played a key role in the effectiveness of responses to COVID-19. The paper analyses evidence from the policy narratives of governors in the four largest states in the United States: California, Florida, New York and Texas.

The analysis found three elements that influenced policy success:

  • a consistent, overarching message
  • a message crafted for the local context
  • aligning talk and action.

Policy narrative and crisis response

Evidence and facts rarely speak for themselves. The ways in which evidence, facts, problems and solutions are presented can have consequences for the attention they receive from legislators, political leaders and the general population.

The Narrative Policy Framework offers an approach to the use of storytelling in public policy when it advises to:

Structure your stories into a full narrative that includes setting the stage, establishing a plot, casting characters (heroes, victims, villains), and specify a moral.

When crises strike, there is a need for political and government leaders to rapidly make sense of the situation and then to engage in “meaning-making” so that others can appreciate what is happening.

Policy narratives created to support effective crisis response can be expected to:

  • Provide persuasive accounts of what is happening, why it is happening and what can be done about it.
  • Create a broad coalition of support for policy actions to be taken and minimise opportunities for conflict.
  • Encourage trust and cooperation among key actors and groups whose actions will be material to addressing the crisis.
  • Enable individuals and communities to make informed crisis response decisions within their respective areas of involvement.

Government responses to COVID-19

The paper analyses the policy narratives of four US governors and their responses to COVID-19. The governors are from California, Florida, New York and Texas and they have differing party political affiliations.

  • California: Governor Gavin Newsom (Democrat)
  • Florida: Governor Ron DeSantis (Republican)
  • New York: Governor Andrew Cuomo (Democrat)
  • Texas: Governor Gregg Abbott (Republican)

Analysis of the policy narratives

1. Providing persuasive accounts of what is happening, why it is happening and what can be done about it

Governor Newsom’s account of the crisis was persuasive because of his ability to define and engage with his audience of Californians. Newsom’s combination of clear messaging and unified action saw California flatten the curve in the initial stages of the virus faster and more effectively than other states.

In comparison to Governor Newsom, the governors in New York, Texas and Florida had inconsistencies in their messaging. 

2. Creating a broad coalition of support for policy actions to be taken and minimising opportunities for conflict

During the first six months of 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo remained at the centre of the COVID-19 response in the US. In the absence of clear messaging from President Trump. Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings enabled him to step into the role usually reserved for the White House and serve as a unifying and trusted voice for the nation

3. Encouraging trust and cooperation among key actors and groups whose actions will be material to addressing the crisis

Governors Newsom and Cuomo both displayed the ability to encourage trust and cooperation among key actors and groups. In contrast, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis appeared to have deliberately created a counter-narrative designed to undermine trust and discourage cooperation among people in Florida.

DeSantis constructed a policy narrative that identified over-reaction and over-regulation as the enemy, rather than the virus.

4. Enabling individuals and communities to make informed crisis response decisions within their respective domains of involvement

In comparison to Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott came across as less dismissive of the crisis. In portraying the crisis, Abbott continually prioritised livelihoods over lives. In his narrative, businesses had suffered most through the crisis. By implication, it was the regeneration of business that would enable individuals, and by extension communities, to rebuild themselves.

What this means

Three key aspects of these narratives influenced policy success:

1. A consistent message

A convincing explanation for why a policy has been (or should be) implemented, requires an overarching message that is consistent and easily identifiable. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, the message has commonly been that certain policies are necessary to save lives.

Without a consistent message, it is more difficult for people:

  • to understand why something is happening
  • to see where they fit within the narrative
  • to follow any policy measures.

2. Crafted for the local context

To be effective, policies need to be accepted within the local context where they are being implemented. The narrative around these policies needs to be recognisable and appeal to a variety of people. Neither Governor Abbott nor Governor DeSantis engaged in “meaning-making” when it came to their lockdown measures. Their policies were generally rejected by their citizens and fellow state officials.

3. Aligning talk and action

No matter how compelling a narrative and how engaging the delivery, if the implemented policies contradict that narrative, then trust and cooperation will wane. The intended audience will be unable to make sense of the situation or make appropriately considered decisions. Crafting neat stories that are not reflected in actual decision-making is an unsustainable approach to effective leadership.

While these conclusions are derived from studying the responses to the COVID-19 crisis, they are applicable in many policymaking contexts. There are compelling reasons for policy designers to integrate narrative development into their policy making practices.

Want to read more?

The importance of policy narrative: effective government responses to COVID-19 - Michael Mintrom and Ruby O’Connor, Policy Design and Practice, September 2020.

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