How might storytelling improve policymaking?
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How might storytelling improve policymaking?

John is a steelworker in the north of the Netherlands. On the horizon, he can see dark clouds forming. Tata Steel - the company where he works - is about to lay off thousands of workers across Europe. He is one of them.

This was John’s first (and only) job straight out of school, he's been there twenty years. The prospect of finding a new job by himself is overwhelming. The same story goes for so many of his friends who also work at the steel factory…

John is a fictional character, but his situation is grounded in reality. This story formed the beginning of a pitch for a reskilling scheme, which proposed that workers like John be paired up with friends and family in the same position to help them transition into new careers.

The proposed approach made John’s prospects seem less daunting; a new career would be achievable with friends and family close by his side.

This is an excerpt from one of several pitches from the latest Digital Frontrunners workshop: ‘Scaling for Social Impact’.

During the workshop, participants explored scalable solutions in response to urgent issues such as inclusive employability, lifelong learning and the impact of technology on jobs.

Hosted by the ministries of Economic Affairs and Social Affairs in the Netherlands, we led participants through a design process, exploring numerous routes to scaling and developing ideas for skills policy, which they transformed into compelling pitches with storytelling at their heart.

“You need to develop John as a character, it needs to be more believable, so we can empathise more with his situation”

“...but what does John do as a response? Things can’t just happen to him”

“Going from the gloomy dark imagery, to the solution is quite powerful”

This was some of the feedback that the group who told John’s story received. The very act of storytelling emerged as something more than a device to improve a pitch; it became a powerful tool for developing better policy ideas.

Storytelling can help to ‘test’ ideas

Our storytelling facilitator, Matt Locke, co-founder of Storythings, highlighted that in the most captivating stories, the protagonist does not simply have things happen to them. Instead, they have agency, it is they who drive the story forward.

Matt Locke

Matt Locke, co-founder of Storythings, facilitates a session on storytelling

Rather than telling your audience what happens to the character in a story, you should show them through the protagonist’s actions.

Matt suggested that a similar logic could be applied when thinking through how users will interact with a service or policy. Don’t treat users or citizens as ‘passengers’, whereby policy happens to them.

Crucially, the outcome of John’s story would be driven by his own actions and motivations. Approaching John’s situation in this way led to some questions:

  • How would John find out about the reskilling scheme?
  • What would cause him to sign up?
  • Where would he find out about it?
  • What would make him choose that over another option?

Applying a storytelling lens in this way, reaching this level of detail and assessing its plausibility, can provide an initial stress test of our ideas.

Participants drew on the experience of Ronald Kleijn, the founder of Make IT Work, to help them consider this level of detail. This is an initiative that is tackling the mismatch of skills and jobs in the Netherlands by retraining non-STEM graduates with sought-after IT skills.

Story arcs can be useful for problem solving

There are many ways to tell a story, but most stories will follow a similar structure or arc.

They will set the scene and describe the everyday or ‘stasis’ of the main characters, before introducing a trigger or inciting incident which gets the rest of the story moving. Usually the trigger will have a negative impact on the protagonist’s life; in John’s case (see below) it’s losing his job.

Story Arc

The story arc a group came up with for their proposed idea

John’s predicament forces us to consider the upheaval losing his job might have.

It immerses us in the problem and his needs, before considering how we might meet those. Not spending enough time on this can lead to missed insights, misunderstanding John’s needs, and wrong assumptions about root causes - a recipe for solutions that don’t work.

The story is too simplistic, in reality John would face multiple obstacles”

The hero’s journey is indeed rarely linear.

Whether the story is about Juliet, the teenager working to get climate science mainstreamed in the French curriculum through a national campaign; Jos, the farmer who joins an association of experts to help him face droughts and pests; or Jerry, the financial worker who hates his job but is able to turn his passion for gardening into a career through a mentoring scheme funded by social impact bonds; the ideas pitched during the workshop would face setbacks and require revision to steer them back on course if tested in the real world.

This was a key point that Ben Gill made when sharing his experience of scaling the crowdfunding platform for schools, the Rocket Fund. He reminded the group that whether you’re finding the right partners, improving a service, getting funding, or scaling across a whole country… innovation is rarely a linear process.

To find out more about our workshops, or to find out more about the initiatives featured here get in touch with the Digital Frontrunners team.

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Ben Gill at DF workshop

Ben Gill from the Rocket Fund shares his scaling journey


Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Curriculum and Content Manager

Juan was a Curriculum and Content Manager supporting the Digital Frontrunners and Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programmes.

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