Communication and Social Action: Policy Stories in the 2011 King County Metro Funding Debate
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Urban planners and public policy analysts are surrounded by heated policy debates. Knowing how to recognize and decipher the structures and techniques of persuasive communication will enable planners to construct their communications more carefully, develop effective persuasive messages, and identify common ground in policy debates. To this end, I used theories from communications, sociology, and other fields to construct a model of a Public Policy Story, a strategic narrative designed to persuade an audience to support a policy action. The story is composed of three plot elements - problem, cause, and solution - and three character groups - victim, villain, and hero. Other communication devices such as appeals to audience values are woven throughout the policy story, and stories of personal experience are often included to heighten the salience of the victim and hero characters. I applied this model to a debate over a funding proposal for King County Metro Transit in 2011, examining the editorials, Op-Eds, and letters to the editor from the Seattle Times. I found two primary policy stories in this debate: the "Bus Cuts" story and the "Inefficient Government" story. Both followed the general outline of the Public Policy Story but each was weak in some areas. Transit supporters focused on the problem and victim part of the story, but did not have a strong cause or villain. Fee opponents did not describe the problem or victim at length, but focused on a strong cause (Metro inefficiency) and villain (public officials). Both sides appealed to common societal values, including efficiency, the economy, and reducing traffic congestion. Fee opponents framed the issue as inefficient and untrustworthy government, while supporters focused on the how public transit helps car drivers and bus riders. In letters to the editor, stories of personal experience used by people on all sides of the debate to amplify a character, usually the victim, including bus riders hurt by the cuts and car owners objecting to the fee. The Public Policy Story framework can be applied to any public policy debate by examining the structure of each argument for these plot and character components. Depending on one's purpose, this can be used to strengthen a policy story, attack another's policy story, or find common ground. The framework can also be used to examine which players are missing in a policy debate and how different characters are constructed.
- Urban planning