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Value of Storytelling for Public Administrators

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
April 21, 2023

All public administrators are faced with the challenge of how best to communicate important messages to staff, elected officials and members of the community. As they look for the optimal way to convey their message, managers appear to rely increasingly on storytelling. Who doesn’t like a good story? I have often marveled at the skill with which master storytellers can weave important lessons into their tales. For centuries, many skilled communicators have understood the power of storytelling. Well before books existed, people passed along vital information through storytelling. Most of us are familiar with Aesop’s fables which are credited to Aesop, who lived around 600 BC although some stories came before and after his time. These fables, originally directed toward adults, included socio-cultural subjects and have been passed along for more than 2,500 years.

The National Story Telling Network describes storytelling as:

“…the art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination” (National Storytelling Network, online).

While the tradition of using stories as a means of imparting important information has continued for centuries, it has gone in and out of favor over time. However, there appears to be an increasing recognition that stories can be an effective means of communicating a message because of the connection that is established with the audience. They generate an engagement of the listener as well as predisposing them to be more open to the message. This means of communicating is being recognized in public management. In the report, Storytellers in Chief, How Local Government Managers Use Storytelling to Lead commissioned by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace), International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators (CAMA), Mike Bennett and Kevin Orr (Bennett and Orr, ICMA) describe their research spanning a decade. They found that in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada local government professionals generally utilize storytelling for the following reasons:

  1. To create an emotional connection;
  2. To make sense of what’s going on;
  3. To challenge practices and assumptions;
  4. To manage in a political environment;
  5. To develop and learn.

In his Foreword in this report, ICMA chief executive, Marc Ott, puts into perspective the challenge that storytelling can help to address, “As local government managers, we must find reliable ways to overcome the caustic discord emblematic of our time and bring people together to support their communities.” (Bennet and Orr, p. 4)

Additionally, Graema McDonald, the chief executive of Solace emphasizes the value of storytelling, “By capturing, and captivating, our communities through stories we can help to create a collective buy-in to a future vision and encourage everyone to strive towards shared goals.” (Bennet and Orr, p.6)

Recognition of the value of storytelling for local governments is reflected in the City and County of Denver establishing the Office of Storytelling. They are using storytelling to help residents get to know the city and its people better.

Public administrators can use storytelling in written communication as well as oral presentations. It can be valuable in communicating with staff as well as the public. For most people, I would imagine that storytelling may need to be an acquired skill albeit one that would be valuable to learn. In writing my first book on city management, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward, Tales of a City/County Manager (Bourey, 2020), I felt that the best way to have managers learn about what it was like to be a manager and the issues they faced was through stories which incorporated different aspects of the profession.

I believe that storytelling can be an effective way to reach people who would not otherwise be open to receiving certain types of information. I wrote previously about the tremendous division we’re facing in this country and the need for public administrators to break through this divide in my column entitled, “Public Administrators Must Promote Understanding and Acceptance” (PA Times, June 13, 2022). In that column I reasoned that public administrators must find ways to establish non-partisan and ideologically neutral conversations in order to provide accurate and vitally important information to various groups. So, the storytelling must follow the long honored tradition of public administration to be non-partisan.

Since the divisiveness in our country is such a critical issue in the present day, my coauthor and brother, Alan Bourey, and I wanted to tackle this in a book that might have the opportunity to reach people who are closed to other’s views. In doing so, we took the storytelling approach. Instead of writing a non-fiction book that would not likely be read by people who needed to read, we decided to write an engaging novel with an embedded message promoting understanding and acceptance. The storytelling is used as a means to capture people’s attention and increase their openness to receive the message. The book, From Peril to Light (James and Alan Bourey, 2023) released on March 28, 2023, is our attempt to bridge the divide. We hope that it will make a significant difference in our country.   

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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