Innovation Week 2012 – Lecture by Professor Sandford Borins

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Is the ability to tell stories, to use narrative to communicate rather than just evidence, given enough attention in the public service? Do we rely too much on dry data to make the case for change?

On Wednesday 6 June Professor Sandford Borins from the University of Toronto tackled these questions when he gave a public lecture entitled ‘Old and new stories: narrative and innovation in public management‘.

A narrative in fiction, a recounting of a set of events that provide a rationale and justification for those events, usually involves one or more protagonists. In the public sector narrative also concerns institutions and organisations – it’s not just about the characters but also the institutions they are interacting with (the school, the hospital or a particular government agency).

Professor Borins outlined four sets of archetypal fables that are common to public sector narrative, based around growth or decline for the protagonist, and renewal or decline for the organisation.

Personal growth of the protagonist Personal decline of the protagonist
Organisational renewal Heroic Sacrificial, Retributive
Organisational decline Ironic Tragic, Satirical

He noted that stories are told to summon emotional reactions – to affect the heart and the gut, not the head. For instance heroic stories are about inspiring us to emulate the protagonist who overcomes adversity, leading to benefit for both them and for the organisation.

Professor Borins illustrated the different types of narrative through examples from film.

Personal growth of the protagonist Personal decline of the protagonist
Organisational renewal The King’s Speech
Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (heroic)
Saving Private Ryan (sacrificial)
All the President’s Men (retributive)
Organisational decline Inside Job (ironic) Gallipoli
The Fog of War (tragic)
Doctor Strangelove (satirical)

So in The King’s Speech, the King overcomes his speech impediment, the speech therapist overcomes the disdain of his peers and demonstrates the success of his methods, and the British people got a King who could speak for them during World War II.

Professor Borins went on to talk about how this relates to politics. Election campaigns for instance, are about the different parties trying to tell stories, including about the relationship between their leader, the issues and the consequences for the electorate (and the opposite for the leaders of other parties). He gave a couple of examples from the US and the narratives being built around President Obama (by either side).

Professor Borins outline that politicians (when in government) generally want good news stories to communicate the success of their programs, they do not just want ‘evidence’. They want a broader narrative that people can relate to. The Professor identified two styles of governing – evidence-based and narrative-based (though they are not mutually exclusive, rather more a preference).

When dealing with people and stakeholders who prefer narrative-based approaches, public servants need to incorporate a narrative component into their policy analysis. A strict recounting of the ‘evidence’ (which is always going to be somewhat ambiguous) will be insufficient. At the same time, if there is too much focus on a particular narrative, Professor Borins recommended that public servants can play a valuable role by looking at alternative or counter-narratives and ensuring an emphasis on good policy design.

In relation to innovation in the public sector, the Professor has used his research into the US Innovation in Government Awards to identify a number of common narratives:

    • agency turn-around – where the leader of an organisation in trouble is replaced and the organisation then goes on to thrive
    • the bottom-up innovation narrative where a front-line employee dedicates themselves to a particular innovation which is eventually recognised, celebrated and applied more widely
    • the top-down innovation narrative where change is implemented from the top (political or from the top of the organisation)
    • the collaborative innovation narrative where there has been a difficult long-standing policy problem reaching across departmental mandates, collaboration is required, there’s a role for civil society (business and non-government organisations) and the innovation is initiated by top-level players who can see the big picture.

Professor Borins noted that narrative can be used in a number of different ways – in good news stories, in visionary stories, internal stories, exculpatory or accusatory stories, and personal stories. He concluded that story telling is a powerful leadership skill, one that the public service should give attention to.

I think there is a very strong case for using narrative more in public sector innovation. Narratives can build the case for change in a way that evidence cannot, especially as many innovations (being new) will not have much evidence. The more the narrative around an innovation can be linked to the purpose of the relevant organisations, policy agendas and strategies, the more likely it is to find acceptance. We need to capture these stories, understand their structures, and use them to show the power of innovation.

You can read more about the Professor’s work on narrative and public sector management and innovation in his book Governing Fables: Learning from Public Sector Narratives – I highly recommend it. Professor Borins also spoke at the Public Sector Innovation Network networking event as part of Innovation Week.

(We will link to the recording of the ANU lecture once it becomes available.)