In Policymaking, the Best Narrative Wins


We all like a good story. Even the wonkiest academic with a copy of Thomas Pikerty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century on her nightstand will agree: There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a good tale, with its hook, its tension, its real people and real quandaries, and its resolution. There’s a reason journalists start every story with a human being. We can relate.

And yet, read a research report on social welfare issues—the very issues with human beings at their core—and you can almost guarantee it will start with something like this:

In 2012, nearly 16 million U.S. children, or over one in five, lived in households that were food-insecure, defined as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food.

Or this:

It is well-known theoretical result that a risk-averse consumer prefers full insurance offered on actuarially fair terms under expected utility maximization without state dependence.

No wonder why research rarely makes it across the bridge from academia to policymaking.

If it’s not the mind-numbing language, it’s the dusty recital of statistics that makes a reader’s eyes glaze over. What’s lacking is a real person facing a problem—in other words, the beginnings of a story. The research is critical, absolutely, but without something to engage the reader and make the story relatable, the research will go unread, or at best, forgotten.

That point is underscored (with a story, it should be noted) by an insider to the DC political wrangling, Raphael Bostic, in his chapter in What Counts: Harnessing Data for America’s Communities, a new book on using data in community development by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Urban Institute.

As former assistant secretary for policy development and research at HUD, Bostic saw firsthand what moves policymakers, even in times of drastic budget cuts. He writes:

“During the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, Congress was in a serious belt-tightening mode. Line items were being pitted against each other to try to bring budgets in line with the reduced total spending that Congress authorized.”

HUD was no exception, he said. Affordable housing programs, voucher programs, and others were all on the cutting block. And yet:

“Homelessness was noticeably absent from the conversation about trade-offs. Almost nobody talked about reducing funding for the suite of programs designed to reduce the incidence and severity of homelessness in United States. Why? Because everyone in Washington—from policy experts, to staffers on the Hill, to elected officials—shared the same understanding about the large returns to up-front investments targeted at treating and preventing homelessness.

The question, of course, is: How did such a consensus emerge?

An important component of the answer can be found in an article by Malcolm Gladwell that appeared in The New Yorker in 2006, titled “Million-Dollar Murray.” The article tells the story of Murray Barr, a chronically homeless man in Reno, Nevada, and the police officers who were regularly called to pick up Murray and deliver him to the hospital or county jail. Gladwell reports that local police estimated that Murray had racked up at least $100,000 in hospital bills in only six months. But he’d been repeating the same pattern during his 10 years on the streets, meaning that he’d likely cost public services more than $1 million—far greater than what it would have cost to provide him housing or supportive services.”

But there was something else, writes Bostic, that cemented the point for policymakers.

Although the story would have been quite useful for informing homelessness policy in Reno, Gladwell went further. He chronicled the work of many researchers…to support the notion that there are Murray Barrs in every U.S. city.

The story resonated with members of Congress and, as a result, funding to prevent and address homelessness was not on the cutting block. It is this crucial combination of narrative backed by solid research that won the day—and should be winning the day more often. We all need real-life examples to make the statistics meaningful. Those stories can help put the research in a context that policymakers and their constituents can understand. In many respects, in DC and state capitols, the best narrative wins.

True, personal stories are not representative. And yes, anecdotes and single examples can simplify complex trends. But combined, the narrative and research can become a powerful voice for the most disadvantaged.

We’re excited to be in the midst of bringing some of these stories from the What Counts book to life in collaboration with the great folks at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Our first story will show how empowering data can be when used to lend evidence to what community members know anecdotally. Stay tuned.

Ready to learn more? Get in touch.