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PPGPortal > Home > Concept Dictionary > N, O > Narrative



An ordered representation of events. A narrative may or may not be strictly chronological.

(Sandford Borins. “Narrative: Why It Matters.”)


The importance of the concept of narrative to politics and public management has become increasingly widely recognized in recent years. The construction of a narrative involves a conscious effort to create an ordered representation of events in the minds of a particular audience.

Narrative plays an important role in several dimensions of political affairs. Political parties, individual politicians and others work hard to develop persuasive narratives which engage an identified audience - often the general public, in order to persuade that audience of their capacity for leadership, or the benefits of their policy proposals.

It is easy to see why narrative plays an important role in political campaigns. Political parties and individual politicians attempt to create a narrative of recent history in the minds of voters which makes it appear proper for particular individuals to ascend to or retain power (Borins). For example, the personal narratives of the two contenders in the 2008 American Presidential election were particularly important dimensions of that campaign. Senator McCain heavily emphasized his own life experience in his campaign, attempting to cause voters to view him as a living embodiment of patriotism and republican self-sacrifice. In particular, the emphasis on Senator McCain’s physical courage and personal heroism during the Vietnam war seems to have been intended to create a narrative in which voters would view him as a strong leader, and a man suited to the harsh and character-testing demands of the Presidency. Similarly, now-President Obama emphasized his own personal narrative, pointing to his experience as a grassroots activist and limited time spent in Washington DC as evidence that he was not part of the bickering and self-interested “political class.” 

In an essay published in Networked Government, Professor Sandford Borins reminds us that, because political campaigns are zero-sum games, the narratives promoted by rival campaigns are necessarily conflicting, which creates a powerful incentive for politicians and their operatives to disrupt and discredit each other’s narratives. Hence, Senator McCain’s efforts to emphasize President Obama’s experience in Chicago’s  local “political machine” and President Obama’s attempt to portray McCain as a part of the Washington “establishment,” an image which conflicted with McCain’s populist narrative of himself as a “maverick,” the tireless opponent of that establishment

Although the importance of narrative to political campaigns has long been recognized, Professor Borins writes in Networked Government that narrative plays an important role in the operation of the public sector in a number of other important and less obvious ways. For example, Borins writes that issues surrounding accountability are influenced by narrative. Mistakes are inevitable, and there are usually parties who insist that these mistakes be explained. The explanatory narratives that result in Auditor General reports, public inquiries and other forums are used to “provide sequence and locate agency.” Borins writes that explanatory narratives generally culminate in an attribution of responsibility for the failure in question.

Borins also argues that policy work “always involves a narrative component.” Narratives surround the history of how a particular policy developed, and required departmental plans create “predictive narratives” which describe planned future interactions between departmental commitments and external forces.

Due to the extent to which narratives pervade these various dimensions of the public sector, Borins argues that skill at creating and communicating compelling stories is an important skill for politicians, but also for public servants. Borins suggests that the importance of this skill, which he calls “narrative competence” is often underappreciated, and is “essential” for effective public management. By studying exemplary narratives, and their authors’ strategies of engagement and persuasion, Borins writes that public servants can learn to manage more effectively.


Sandford Borins. "Narrative: Why It Matters." Networked Government. June 2009.




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© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance