Governing Fables: Learning from Public Sector Narratives

By Lindquist, Evert A. | Canadian Public Administration, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Governing Fables: Learning from Public Sector Narratives


Lindquist, Evert A., Canadian Public Administration


Governing Fables: Learning from Public Sector Narratives

By SANDFORD BORINS. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, 2011. Pp. xiv, 291, bibliographic references, index.

Everyday Life in British Government

By R.A.W. RHODES. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 349, bibliographic references, name and subject index.

My first exposure to the application of narrative analysis to public administration issues was at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Public Policy. One of my PhD student colleagues, Emery Roe, assisted another PhD student with processing her massive set of interviews documenting the experiences and views of hundreds of players--from politicians to front-line scientists--in the California Medfly crisis of the early 1980s, which was no small feat. Roe's side-reading in literary criticism and narrative analysis led him to think about this data and what constituted the essential problem in different ways; after completing his dissertation on a different subject, he published Narrative Policy Analysis (Duke University Press 1994). He argued that policy analysts--when dealing with highly complex problems under conditions of high uncertainty, involving multiple actors with diverse viewpoints, and no clear answers--were often left with the important task of analyzing and making sense of the often incomplete stories and anti-stories from actors, which required embracing critical tools for appraising accounts and narratives as part of the policy analyst's toolkit. Moreover, advising, decision making and communications could be seen as efforts to create "meta-narratives."

Then, Emery was a relatively lonely soul; most US public policy and management scholars were skeptical of an approach that embraced uncertainty, values and story-telling, and the notion that interpretive social science might have implications for public policy was just taking root. (1) Even fewer had thought about the implications for public management. Fast-forward to 2011, and the notion of constructing narratives for political leaders, public service executives, and policy analysts is commonplace--a response to new communications technologies and ever-more aggressive efforts to "spin" out messages, counter competing narratives, and to find common ground or use partial stories as wedges. Many of us with passing interest in these areas have awaited publication of books by two highly regarded scholars. Sandford Borin's Governing Fables is the culmination of years of creative teaching and reflection on how to use literature (fiction and non-fiction) as a means for exploring political leadership and public management innovation. Rod Rhodes' Everyday Life in British Government is an outgrowth of both the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)'s Transforming British Government series of his mid-career and his late-career efforts with Mark Bevir to apply narrative and interpretive perspectives and methodology to understand public sector governance. These intriguing contributions vary significantly from each other in terms of focus and methodology, with some intersection, and together shed light on the state of how we teach and undertake research.

Governing Fables challenges and illuminates, bringing a whole different set of perspectives to bear on analyzing and teaching public administration. While Borins' reach is broad, it is important to understand that the book's essential focus is captured in its subtitle "Learning from Public Sector Narratives." Early in my academic career I had the privilege of sitting in on one of Sandy's undergraduate classes on "Fiction and Public Management" at the University of Toronto at Scarborough (the title has changed over the years), and was impressed with the range of teaching devices utilized, from case studies to film clips to guest speakers. Others were aware of his interest in fiction through his seminal article on "Public choice: 'Yes Minister' made it popular, but does winning a Nobel prize make it true?

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