Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead

I

–Why would we ever think a book on policy written nearly three decades ago remains relevant? It seems to me that the major policy and management issues, though much changed, are still characterized by high uncertainty, complexity, incompletion, and conflict (polarization), the focus of the 1994 Narrative Policy Analysis.

So that we start on the same page, issues are uncertain when causal knowledge about them is found wanting by decisionmakers. Complex when their elements are more numerous, varied and interconnected. Incomplete, when efforts to address them are interrupted or left unfinished. And conflicted, when individuals take very different positions on them often precisely because of their uncertainty, complexity and incompleteness.

–Such issues are now grouped together as wicked problems said to be intractable to conventional policy and management intervention. In the older language, the “truth” of the matter is difficult if not impossible to establish—right now when a decision has to be taken.

If the truth can’t be established or is moot—i.e., there is no truth—what then are ways in which we can establish conditions to take a decision that claims urgency and priority?

II

In answer, though narrative analyses of policy issues have evolved over the three decades, two foci of the original approach remain salient. First its terminology and second, its drive to identify narratives that underwrite policymaking, given current intractability.

–First, the terminology. It’s next to impossible to avoid terms like policy narratives. They are those stories with beginnings, middles and ends, or if cast as arguments with premises and conclusions that policy types and managers tell themselves and others in order to take decisions and justify them.

The narrative analytical approach continues to ask you to start by identifying the different types of narratives in the issue of concern—some of which are very visible—the dominant policy narratives—others of which have to be found or identified, including marginalized counternarratives.

Assume you—the policy analyst, manager, researcher or decisionmaker—find a policy narrative to be too simplistic for the complexities at hand. You can rejigger that narrative in three ways: Denarrativize it; provide a counternarrative or counternarratives; and/or offer a metanarrative (or metanarratives) accommodating a range of story-lines (arguments), not least of which are versions of the simplistic narrative and preferred counternarrative(s).

  • First, denarrativize! To denarrativize is to critique the dominant policy narrative, point by key point. The best way to do that is to bring counter evidence to each point the offending narrative holds. To denarrativize is to take the story out of the story, i.e., to disassemble it by contravening its parts. Abundant case evidence exists to call into question the Tragedy of the Commons, for example.
  • First, counternarrativize! The chief limitation of denarrativization is the inability of critique on its own to generate an alternative narrative to replace the discreditable one. In contrast, a counter-story challenges the original by virtue of being a candidate to replace it. Common property resource management is said today to be the counternarrative to that older Tragedy of the Commons narrative.
  • First, metanarrativize! A metanarrative is that policy narrative—there is no guarantee there is one, or if so, only one—which the narrator holds in order to understand how multiple and opposing policy narratives are not only possible but consistent with each other. Claims to resource stewardship is a metanarrative shared by policies based in the Tragedy of the Commons as well as in other explanations, including but not limited to common property resource management. In this metanarrative, a group—the techno-managerial elite, “the community,” the Other—asserts stewardship over resources they do not own, because they alone, so the metanarrative goes, are capable of determining and adjudicating where and in what form better management holds.

–The second advantage of the original approach continues to be its recognition that decisions have to be made. Yes, of course, taking time to deliberate, being reflective and having second thoughts remain important, but even here acting these ways can end up being a decision of real import.

So, at some point you face a choice over which is the better policy narrative. For narrative policy analysis, a better policy narrative meets three criteria:

  • The narrative—its story with beginning, middle and end, or argument with premises and conclusions—is one that takes seriously that the policy or management issue is complex, uncertain, interrupted and/or polarized.
  • The narrative is one that also moves beyond critique of limitations and defects of the dominant policy narrative (criticisms on their own increase uncertainties when they offer no better storyline to follow).
  • The narrative gives an account that, while not dismissing or denying the issue’s difficulty, is more amenable or tractable to analysis, policymaking and/or management. Indeed, the issue’s very complexity—its numerous components, each varying in terms of its functions and connections—offers up opportunities to recast a problem differently and with it, potential options. Problems are wicked to the degree they have yet to be recast more tractably.

This means that the preferred policy narrative can be in the form of a counternarrative; or it can be in the form of metanarrative; but it won’t be in the form of a critique or other non-narratives like circular arguments or tautologies.

Nor should you think that in a planet of now 7+ billion people you have to invent a preferred policy narrative from scratch: Preferred policy narratives—note the plural—should be assumed from the get-go to exist and are being modified.

–To summarize, the policy narratives of interest for narrative policy analysis are not those used by policy types who insist they already know the truth. This approach is NOT about how various Big Lies have evolved from Goebbels through Trump, as in: The Jews were to blame before; the Blacks were to blame later; Islamists are to blame now.

Rather and to reiterate, the evolving field of narrative policy analysis over the last three decades remains relevant for those issues that policy types, analysts and researchers already admit a high degree of uncertainty, complexity, incompleteness and polarization—or again in today’s parlance the issues are wicked and intractable in their current casting.

III

–To see if we’re still on the same page by this point, assume in this simple thought experiment you are faced with two dominant environmental crisis narratives about globalization:

  • The green narrative assumes that we have already witnessed sufficient harm to the environment due to globalization and thus this narrative demands taking action now to restrain further global destruction. More research isn’t needed in order to decide that new action is required, now. This crisis scenario is certain in its knowledge about the causes and effects of globalization, in the view of many environmentalists.
  • The ecological narrative starts with the massive but largely unknown or uncertain effects of globalization on the most complex ecosystem there is, Planet Earth, now and going forward. More research isn’t needed in order to decide that new action is required, now. Here enormous uncertainties over the impacts of globalization, some of which could well be irreversible, are reason enough not to promote or tolerate further globalization, in the  view of many ecologists.

Both seek to stop harmful effects on the environment from globalization. But which is the better narrative when it comes to the next steps ahead in environmental policy and management?

Well, you know my answer. From a narrative analytical viewpoint, if future unpredictabilities—uncertainty, complexity, conflict and unfinished business—are taken seriously, the ecological narrative is the better one. Or if you are sure that in your case the green scenario is the one to start then and there, your challenge is to detail how conditions could lead to hitherto unspecified unpredictabilities in the local scenario(s).

Principal sources

Earlier blog entries: “Policy narratives,” “Better fastthinking for complex times”

E. Roe and M. van Eeten (2004). “Three—Not Two—Major Environmental Counternarratives to Globalization,” Global Environmental Politics 4(4).

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