The Advocacy Iceberg

The Advocacy Iceberg

January 20, 2016

Natural causes

The Advocacy Iceberg
The Advocacy Iceberg
Natural causes
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Show Notes

There are mixed views about the Today Programme in my house. As a result, whilst I generally try to avoid it, I sometimes end up hearing parts of it.

And this accounts for the misfortune that befell me last week: I got to hear John Humphrys conducting an interview about the junior doctors’ strike.

The line he pursued was, basically, what if someone dies as a result of lack of cover during the strike?

I expect there are journalistic merits to this line of questioning but I found it irksome.

It seemed to be more about springing a trap than delving into the issues.

And the deceptive simplicity of the trap being sprung mendaciously obscured a much more complex reality.

Nobody could get away with putting forward the argument on the Today Programme – or anywhere else – that people’s deaths don’t matter.

But if you follow that logic, then any policy that has any risk at all to anyone becomes literally indefensible.

But then again, people with the power to do something about it don’t seem that bothered that thousands of people are dying prematurely because of air pollution for example.

Or that there are thousands of excess winter deaths.

Or that preventable deaths of people with learning disabilities are occurring under the NHS – as highlighted by the #JusticeforLB campaign as it bangs its head against a brick wall of indolent officialdom. Indeed it seems that the NHS Trust involved has not even been bothered enough to properly investigate hundreds of such unexpected deaths.  And nobody seems all that worried about that either.

Or that for years, deaths of cyclists have been seen as some sort of unavoidable by-product of our transport system. Stretching the idea of ‘natural causes’ way beyond breaking point.

Or then there’s #BlackLivesMatter. Or @CountDeadWomen.

And it’s no coincidence of course that all these examples are of groups who are relatively powerless and marginalised.

How problems are seen is a battleground in which power relations play out.

Looking at how issues get onto the policy agenda, or not, political theorist John Kingdon makes the point that the way to get movement on your issue is for it to be seen as a social problem in need of some sort of intervention.

Instead of this, problems can be seen as:

A private misfortune

I don’t want go on about neoliberalism yet again, but just to say that the emphasis on individual responsibility for behaviours turns out to be a neat way of policy makers evading all kinds of responsibility for what is going on in society.

But you can get traction if you can turn that around. The ban on smoking in public places came about partly as a result of the issue being framed around passive smoking, and so a social problem rather than one only affecting individuals who smoke for example.

Just the natural state of things.

This played out during the recent floods for example, with government spokespeople churning out the line that the floods were unprecedented, a ‘once in a hundred’ years event, something that couldn’t have been planned for.

Extreme weather becoming more common is something policy makers want to avoid accepting because of the implications that would flow from it – in terms of spending implications, the need to upset powerful vested interests (such as the fossil fuel lobby, in this case) etc.

It’s much easier to ascribe things to ‘natural causes’, with the implication that nothing can be done about their causes or effects.

If problems are seen as private misfortunes, or just the way things are, this can create a roadblock to action.

And how issues are framed is a part of this.

Post ‘Finding Frames’ a fair amount of talk about framing in the sector has tended to be about values (charity vs. justice) but in the old days, as I mean it here, it was more about ensuring that overarching campaign messaging explicitly addressed the barriers to progress by:

  • Setting out the problem in a way that identifies those responsible, showing why the current state of things is neither natural nor accidental
  • Dramatising the concern
  • Presenting a clear solution, and
  • Including a compelling call to action*

Policy making is more than just a question of who wins existing debates. It’s also about which issues make it to the table. And a lot of that is about how the issue is seen.

So as campaigners we need to

  1. Pay attention to how the issue is typically framed,
  2. Consider best ways to reframe it favourably, and then
  3. Push that frame in wider discourse.


John Kingdon’s analysis of policy processes and how issues become seen as problems in need of a solution is in ‘Agendas, Alternatives & Public Policies’

* I’ve taken this from the version of the Good Campaigns Guide I wrote with Tess Kingham in 2005.