Sunday, 30 January 2011

Narrativewatch: Obama's "Sputnik moment"

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama called for big investments in education, infrastructure, research and innovation as the best ways to make sure the US meets the challenge from an economically resurgent China. He wants to improve the education system, ensure there are more maths and science graduates, pioneer new industries, invest in R&D and encourage entrepreneurship.

Here’s his call to arms:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.

In recalling the time when a complacent America was galvanised into action after the Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite, and saying “now we must do it again”, Obama was telling a springboard story, but in a political setting.

(What’s a springboard story? Storytelling guru Stephen Denning defines it as:

a story that enables a leap in understanding by the audience so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex system may change.

For more background, click here.)

Springboard stories can be as powerful as, well, as Saturn V rocket. But they are tricky things for politicians to keep under control, because others soon drop in context and spin. For instance, Slate’s Fred Kaplan noted the apparent contradiction between Obama’s call for the funding of "a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the space race," investing in biomedicine, information technology, and clean-energy technology, and his proposal to freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.

Kaplan discussed how America prevailed over the USSR in the space race of the 1960s and concluded that “doing big things” (another key soundbite from the speech) usually needs a big injection of government funding.

There’s more to it though. Today, Don Lee and David Pierson of the Los Angeles Times show how the analogy between America’s current concern about China and the US/USSR space race doesn’t really stack up. They remind us that China’s attitude towards the US is not as aggressive or as belligerent as that of the Soviet leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. The level of economic integration – and dependence - between the US and China is well-documented and neither side wants to mess that up. Some companies may choose to have their innovative plant in China. Lee and Pierson make another telling point:

Perhaps most important, Washington was able to respond to Sputnik by pouring billions of dollars into a new space program. But today, the nation is deeply in debt.

The last comment goes to the heart of whether the springboard will work -- or, in this case, whether the rocket will leave the launch pad. This week, Dan Farber of CBS pondered whether Obama will be able to persuade private corporations, who are, after all, more likely to have the investment capital, as well as Congress, to put the billions of dollars in the innovation and technologies that will be needed if America is to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.

President Obama should be congratulated for trying to find his own version of Ronald’ Reagan’s “morning in America”. But he will need some robust, credible policies and incentives, as well as sound political strategies for pulling in private sector investment and spurring innovation.

I have long argued that sound policies need compelling narratives in order to be sold successfully. Obama’s “Sputnik moment” may prove that clever narratives need sound policies in order to stick.

As Lee and Pierson say:

If partisan strife leads to paralysis and neither [Obama’s] proposals nor alternatives are enacted — or if they fail to produce quick results and the public grows disillusioned — then the slow growth and high unemployment of today could stretch even further into the future.

Footnote: In case you missed it, Sarah Palin tried to peddle a counter-story on the “Sputnik moment”, but it all went a bit weird. Click here.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Reframing climate change: a new overview

Most successful communicators are adept at framing, whether using frames intentionally or intuitively.

So says Matthew Nisbet, associate professor in the School of Communication at American University and blogger for Age of Engagement.

His primer on framing, what it is and how issues are framed, is essential reading for anyone involved in communications, especially about climate change.

Nisbet includes links to his earlier work, including this interesting article describing the frames that are frequently used in the climate change debate.

But he expresses concern that the framing of climate change is considered in terms of marketing and persuasion rather than as a resource for encouraging “bottom up” public involvement. Nisbet goes on:

The unintended consequence of a marketing, political campaign approach is that these strategies tend to seed further polarization and alienation while risking trust in experts and their organizations.

Nisbet, of course, writes about the US, where debate on climate change divides on party political lines much more than it does here. Across the Atlantic, there is much more dispute as to whether or not human-made climate change is real.

Yet the “marketing, political campaign approach” is also dominant in Britain’s discourse about climate change. There may not have been American-style polarisation and alienation, but the public have become less concerned about climate change over the last couple of years, as economic worries – jobs and mortgages – have moved to centre stage. (These trends can be too easily be over-stated, as Climate Sock has pointed out). And the media have lost interest , especially after the Copenhagen summit.

If we are to meet our emissions targets, governments and supporters of climate action will need to encourage people to adopt more-environmentally friendly behaviours. The policies needed are sure to be costly and controversial, meaning that public buy in will be essential. So, what sort of frames should be used?

The most familiar is what Nisbet calls the “Frankenstein’s monster” frame. You tell horror stories to grab the public’s attention, convince them that climate change is an important issue and warn about what will happen unless we all take action to emit less carbon. Many of the horror stories are, of course, well founded and well-researched. But there is growing evidence that “climate pornography” pushes people away and makes them feel that their personal efforts to tackle climate change are hopeless.

Last October, 10:1o tried to push climate change back into the headlines in a scary but humorous way, with disastrous consequences. [click here] Still, NEF’s “hundred months” campaign regularly warns us how little time we supposedly have left to save the planet. (It’s now 71 months, I think).

More positive strategies have been put forward. Last year, Tom Crompton of WWF argued that the government must promote a whole new set of values by which people should live, to promote a shift to a more sustainable society. [Click here, and here.] This sounds like a “moral” or “ethical” version of Nisbet’s “social progress” frame.

But other supporters of climate action acknowledge that most people want to enjoy ever more prosperous and comfortable lives and such materialist drives will prevail over any concerns that they may have about “climate change”. Consequently, most people will not readily make sacrifices to solve a problem that seems too academic, too big, too far away, too out of their control – or too scary.

The logical conclusion is that stories and frames should move on from “climate change”. and on to other arguments for taking action. For instance, this interesting New York Times article, from last October, about energy efficiency in Kansas, suggests that with ‘climate sceptic’ audiences, behaviour change is best framed in terms of other issues, such as energy security, jobs, and faith, rather than in terms of saving the environment.

One branch of this school of thought focuses on personal considerations, such as the promise of a better quality of life. Futerra’s Solitaire Townsend contends that politicians should tell the public a positive but down-to-earth story about what a low carbon way of life would look and feel like - “building a new narrative in people’s heads . . . a self-fulfilling low-carbon prophecy”. She has argued for “[low carbon] substitution, not sacrifice”. [Click here, and here.] Even if the narrative sounds a bit vague, it opens the way to a “consumerist” or “aspirational” edge to the “social progress” frame.

But neither Crompton or Townsend (or, at least, their material that I have seen) contains much analysis of current public perceptions and attitudes – where people are now, how much prepared they are to change, and why. Even Solitaire Townsend has tended to skirt around the issue of economic incentives or, to put it bluntly: why should people start living in more environmentally friendly ways? Where is the financial pay off for them?

The consumerist, “pocketbook” agenda is at the heart of the Political Climate blog, written for a year now by Matthew Lockwood and Andrew Pendleton. They want public policy to focus more on cutting on emissions than on changing behaviours. The Political Climate duo challenge the way politicians have framed climate change as an economic issue, with policies to price carbon (emissions trading, carbon taxes) and attempts to build an international framework as the solution. Instead, they want government to fund policies that bring down the price of low-carbon energy technologies, thereby helping to reframe the debate in more exciting ways, so as to bring more people and interest groups on board.

Political Climate’s argument is a version of the economic development frame, which positions climate change as an opportunity to grow the economy and create jobs, as well as to save the environment: a “win-win” solution.

I follow their work with considerable interest, but I’m still not convinced that the “innovation” answer could stabilise emissions quickly enough to meet the UK’s -- or other countries’ -- emissions targets. It may take years or even decades for cheap new technologies to reach the level of deployment needed to make a major impact on emissions. The alternative path is not as clear as it might be. In these fiscally straitened times, it’s very hard to see how the UK government could write the massive cheque needed to decarbonise our energy system by 2030. A key test of economic development frames like the promise of “green jobs” is whether they are plausible and credible.

Meanwhile, the coalition government has taken economic development as their central frame (but not the only one) for communicating climate policy. Two notable speeches by the energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, on the theme of “green growth” can be seen here and here. Huhne argues that “green growth” will be delivered by more energy saving, carbon capture and storage, renewables and “new nuclear plant as long as there is no public subsidy”.

Crucially, the government wants to reform the electricity markets in order to promote investment in low-carbon energy technologies. It also believes that the EU emissions trading scheme can be reformed, to deliver a strong carbon price. The government’s policies and frames are, therefore, fundamentally different from those of Political Climate.

Chris Huhne is also invoking a “consumer benefits” frame with his promotion of the government’s Green Deal scheme for energy efficiency. His speech to last year’s Liberal Democrat conference is a good example. “Under the Green Deal consumers will save energy and save money.”

Now for the hard questions.

Will “green growth” happen? Will the government – the whole government – present a consistent, credible narrative on climate change or “green growth”? Will the public believe any of it?

How will the Green Deal be marketed to UK households? Will it work? (These questions address both policy and personal behaviours)

For that matter, can "green growth” frames persuade people to make the major economic changes that are needed, or is Tom Crompton correct when he warns that that appeals to materialism cannot, in the end, build strong public support for the radical changes that are needed in the way we live and may even undermine the massive paradigm shift required? Maybe some of Solitaire Townsend’s more “vision-based” narratives could help?

Or do we need to take some other American advice, from Joe Romm for instance, and try to make sure that discussion of policies that aim to tackle global warming should be located firmly in the context of global warming?

Over the coming months, this blog will address these questions in more detail, as well as the other issues raised above about different climate change and environmental frames. Then there’s the small matter of whether the media really wants to talk about it. More on that soon.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Nick Clegg's rating for "competence" may vindicate his coalition strategy

Could Nick Clegg’s strategy of taking “full ownership” of the coalition's decisions – even unpopular ones – may be paying off, after all?

Earlier this month, The Independent’s Andrew Grice summed up the accepted version of Nick Clegg’s approach to the coalition thus far:

The Deputy Prime Minister is convinced that his party would reap no dividend at all if it tried to let the Conservatives take the blame for the nasty medicine needed to cure the country's economic ills.

He hopes the Liberal Democrats will eventually get a reward for facing up to hard decisions, by showing they can be trusted in Government and are no longer a wasted vote.

This strategy, which now seems to be in the process of being modified, addresses the weakest points of the Liberal Democrats’ brand. So far, however, “owning the coalition” doesn’t appear to have done the party much good. According to YouGov, in mid-December 2010, our poll ratings for being “led by people of real ability” and having “leaders [who] are prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions” were still stuck in single figures, just as they were before the general election.

It may not be as simple as that. We also need to look at public perceptions of Nick Clegg who is the most accessible symbol of the party, the embodiment of our narrative. That is especially true in this era of quasi-presidential politics.

In The House magazine (17 January 2011, p.9), Professor Paul Whiteley of the British Election Study relates how, in their monthly surveys, the BES asks people to rank each party leader on a scale that runs from 0 (very incompetent) to 10 (very competent). I can’t find an electronic version of his article or the graph, so here are his main conclusions:

Surprisingly, Nick Clegg has been in the lead on this measure for almost the whole of the period [November 2009 to November 2010]. He overtook David Cameron in the competency stakes in December 2009 and has been ahead of him ever since.

Clegg’s rating was boosted by the general election campaign and, in particular, the first of the televised debates.

But the post-election unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats, which has seen their voting support plunge to half that of their general election vote share, has not affected his competency ratings very much.

Professor Whiteley goes on to add a cautionary note, that competency is but one dimension of leadership evaluations. He says that a leader should also be seen as likeable, trustworthy and in touch with ordinary people.

On these scores, the news for Clegg is mixed. The Ipsos MORI political monitor for December 2010 found that 27% of voters thought that he was “more honest than most politicians” compared to 33% for David Cameron and 24% for Ed Miliband.

Ipsos MORI also found that 43% of voters thought that Clegg was “out of touch with ordinary people”, compared to 51% for David Cameron and 34% for Ed Miliband.

Like all polling figures, these findings need to be seen in context. First, at the time of the election, Clegg was seen as the most honest and down to earth of the three leaders, according to Ipsos MORI. So, Cameron has now overtaken him in these areas.

Second, YouGov have tracked a downward trend since the election debates in Clegg’s ratings for being “in touch with the concerns of ordinary people”, “honest” and “sticking to what he believes in”. His best score, especially with Lib Dem and Conservative voters, is for being “charismatic”. [Anthony Wells provides some useful background, including on pre- and post-debate comparisons, here.]

Third, the BES figures cited above do not show the full impact of the tuition fees debacle. Ipsos MORI have traced the plunge in perceptions of Nick Clegg’s trustworthiness in the wake of the tuition fees vote.

Professor Whiteley finishes with the following suggestion.

[To] be seen as competent gives a leader a real advantage since it wins him an audience – voters will listen to a leader who they think is competent, whereas they are likely to dismiss a leader they think is incompetent.

I agree with Professor Whiteley, but I would add that being seen as “strong” is even more important. Last month, YouGov reported that just 5% of voters thought that Clegg was “strong” and 8% saw him as “decisive”. These were amongst his weakest areas just before election day [YouGov], when his popularity was at its peak so perhaps all is not lost. But voters might expect to see evidence of “strength”, which may go some way towards explaining the Lib Dems’ disappointing performance at the election.

Over the next couple of years, Nick Clegg will provide a test case for these theories. His future, and that of the Liberal Democrats, could well hinge on the way public perceptions of his competence, strength, likeability and trustworthiness pan out.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Obama at Tucson

Yesterday’s brilliant, inspiring memorial speech by President Barack Obama in Tucson, Arizona will, no doubt, be studied by students of speech, rhetoric and the presidency for years to come.

What stood out for me was the way Obama exhorted the American people to rise above partisan bickering, to pull together and become better citizens. He told a powerful story.

As Slate’s John Dickerson put it, the president memorialised the dead and celebrated the heroes. He told their simple but value-laden stories: Judge John Roll, “the hardest working judge within the Ninth Circuit”; George and Dorothy Morris “high school sweethearts who got married and had two daughters”; Phyllis Schenck, “a qifted quilter . . . whose life revolved around her three children”; Dorwan and Mavy Stoddart who “helped folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ”; and Gabe Zimmerman, the aide who “made the cares of [Rep. Giffords] his own . . . seeing to it that . . . government was working for ordinary folks”.

The president had one more example:

And then there is nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Christina was an A student; she was a dancer; she was a gymnast; she was a swimmer. She decided that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the Major Leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her. She showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age. She'd remind her mother, "We are so blessed. We have the best life." And she'd pay those blessings back by participating in a charity that helped children who were less fortunate.

The point – the moral lesson – came when the president drew all the stories together and invited his countrymen and women to live up to and honour the examples set by Jared Loughner’s victims. Obama started the lesson by asking a question.

Their actions, their selflessness poses a challenge to each of us. It raises a question of what, beyond prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?

Here’s the core of the president’s answer:

Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.

Then came the rationale, rooted in his values and what Obama clearly hopes are the better angels of his country’s nature:

We recognize our own mortality, and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -- but rather, how well we have loved -- and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better. And that process -- that process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions -- that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires.

The president backed up the argument by presenting the fallen as embodiments of American values, the self-images of the nation:

We may not have known them personally, but surely we see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis -- she's our mom or our grandma; Gabe our brother or son. (Applause.) In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America's fidelity to the law.

Of Rep. Giffords, he said:

In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public-spiritedness; that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.


In Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic. So deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate -- as it should -- let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost.

The president spoke of the debt of honour we owe the victims:

. . . The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations.

They believed -- they believed, and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life here -- they help me believe.

President Obama summed up the moral of the story thus:

Imagine -- imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted. I want to live up to her expectations.

I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.

There were some subtle metaphors too. When the president revealed that Rep. Giffords had opened her eyes during his visit with her, he may have been inviting the rest of us to open our eyes too, to see what really matters and how we can be better citizens.

And President Obama’s Tucson speech will be remembered for the powerful, pitch perfect way he told the nation’s story. He has had good reviews from the mainstream left and the mainstream right, because he gripped what his audience – the American people – were worrying about and then transcended the messy politics of the situation, offering them a higher path. In his own, more restrained way, Obama followed the empathetic example set by Bill Clinton at Oklahoma City in 1995.

As Max Atkinson has said: “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Coalition narrativewatch: alarm clock Britain

Here’s a new political narrative for 2011. In today’s Sun, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, champions “alarm clock Britain”.

This is an “I’m on your side” political story.

It’s clear who the heroes are:

People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life. People who want their kids to get ahead.

People who don't want to rely on state handouts. People who don't need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. People who are not poor but struggle to stay out of the red.

They are the backbone of Britain . . .

They drive our economy every single day of the year. Rain, wind or shine they are busy making this country tick.

But there are other heroes too: the coalition government, especially the Liberal Democrats, whose policies will give the hard-working people of virtue the break they deserve.

And the villains? The Labour Party who left us in a financial hole and remain in denial.

But I don’t see the dramatic, decisive event – the policy – that will produce a happy ending to the story.

Still, “Alarm Clock Britain” may help to define what “fairness”, the most empty of the Liberal Democrats' political slogans, really means.

Let’s see how this one goes.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Ed Miliband and the perils of spinning polls

Here is one of my golden rules of politics:

Never brief or make a public comment on public opinion polls because anything you say will come back and bite you on the bum.

To expand: no matter how clever your analysis, it will be proven wrong by other figures or, quite simply, be overtaken by events.

The rule seems to have vindicated again today.

Check out this tweet by The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland:

Ed M's team chuffed by Comres poll, briefing that the 36% approval for Ed is ahead of Cam's 32% rating at equiv stage.

A few moments later, Freedland retweeted this:

RT @CitrusSpring: He shouldn't be that chuffed - 42% disapproval not so great.With Govt cuts, he's practically got an open goal>>also true

Other recent findings show the hazards of spinning poor polls. At the end of last month, Ipsos MORI published an assessment of Ed Miliband’s first 100 days as Labour leader. It showed that opinion on Ed Miliband is now split. But after quite a promising start, his net “satisfaction” rating has dropped from +19% to +1%. Of past Labour and Tory party leaders for whom data is available, only Michael Foot had a higher negative rating after three months in the job. Ed Miliband is also the least recognised of the party leaders.

In December, YouGov showed his approval rating at minus 14%.

Still, I hope that my Liberal Democrat colleagues don’t become too complacent about the trap Ed Miliband’s team are falling into. Some reactions to last week’s Independent poll of polls relied on similar logic. The Independent claimed that the Lib Dems’ current weighted average rating of 11% was the party’s lowest on record. No, it was even lower after the merger fiasco of 1988, some Lib Dems (and at least one commentator) said. They were correct. But the point is, surely, that if the party’s total vote fell that far, more than half the Liberal Democrats in the Commons would be swept away.

Footnote: The rule above also applies to bad by-election results. (Click here).

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Learning from Ronald Reagan, master storyteller

In this week’s Economist, the Lexington column says that Barack Obama has been reading Lou Cannon’s well-regarded biography of Ronald Reagan for inspiration. The president could go to worse places. After all, Reagan’s party did not have control of both houses of Congress. He too suffered from poor poll ratings and bad mid-term election results in his early years in office. Like Obama, Reagan inherited an economy in a parlous state. Yet he went on to triumph at the 1984 election, carrying 49 out of 50 states.

Lexington argues, correctly, that Reagan’s experience does not provide a simple formula for Obama to follow. Nor does Lexington buy all the easy myths about the Reagan presidency. [For my take, click here.] But s/he comes to an interesting conclusion:

. . . Americans warmed to [Reagan] not just because of what he did but also because of the sort of person he was. Mr Cannon argues that his political magic did not reside only in his happiness and folksy charm. His greatness was that “he carried a shining vision of America inside him.” He had a simple belief that nothing was impossible in America if only government got out of the way. In rejecting the idea of limits, says Mr Cannon, he expressed a core conviction of the nation. Mr Obama does not share this belief, and is perhaps right not to. The idea that nothing is impossible in and for America is an illusion. But Americans have never thanked their presidents for telling them so.

In making American exceptionalism his cause, Reagan was a master storyteller, He understood, instinctively, what political narratives are about and how they work. He saw that his compatriots feared national decline, in the wake of Watergate, Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shocks and stagflation of the 1970s. Reagan offered them a happy ending, expressed powerfully in his ’84 campaign spot, Morning in America. Above all, he understood the need of the American people -- like people everywhere -- to have a clear sense of who they are, where they stand and where they are goig.

In his seminal book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Howard Gardner argues that most leaders’ stories

address the most essential questions raised by human beings and seek to provide satisfying answers to those questions . . . issues of self, group membership, past and future, good and evil.

Gardner says that the stories of leaders are

created in response to the pervasive need to understand oneself, the groups that exist in and beyond one’s culture and issues of values and meaning.

I have long believed that politicians from moderate left and liberal parties do rather well at reaffirming their comrades’ core convictions about themselves and their political values, but are less adept at expressing the values of those “beyond the base”. By contrast, Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and it seems, New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, are good examples of conservative or moderate right politicians who succeeded by playing back or embodying the commonly-held stories of their countrymen and women.

If he is to win a second term, Obama must break this spell, just as Bill Clinton did. He will need to offer his own “Morning in America”, complete with bold rhetoric about investing in the future and making sure that nobody is left out. If he doesn’t, someone else will come through with his – or her - new dawn, and I suspect the outcomes will be unpleasant.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous