Confessions of a framing sceptic 

by Julia Unwin

When I first heard about framing I heard spin. I thought that it was all about identifying  the prejudice of the public and then pandering to it. I thought it was better suited to advertising and the dark arts of politics than the much more complex world of policy development and communication. I thought it was a way of putting a coat of shiny paint on the crumbling edifice of some of our services.

I was so very wrong.

I learned through early exposure to the framing thinking on issues as different as children’s nutrition, housing and poverty that framing is a technique that is genuinely disruptive, hugely challenging to those of us who think we know best, and is a way of rethinking and challenging the fundamentals of some of the rather weary positions that we are all so ready to recycle.

I learned five things that have changed the way I think about public policy, not just what I say.

  1. I’ve learned something I should have known all along :  how we feel about something is as important as what we know. That old campaigning question – do you know, think or feel?  – needs to be relearned. How we feel really matters and this is true of the people who view an issue from afar, those who are personally and intimately involved and those of us with a professional label.
  2. I’ve learned that everything is  always framed. The question is how it is framed. If you describe your services in terms of pity and distance, than that’s how it will be experienced. If you talk about housing in terms of desperation and  need, then you can’t be surprised if it becomes an emergency service. The question is framing it accurately in ways that are completely authentic.
  3. I’ve learned that if you talk in the way that makes you feel comfortable, you’re probably not listening. And not listening probably means that you’ll never be heard by anyone except people like you. And that reciting  data and research evidence in the way I have been trained, may be easy, but probably means that you’re not being heard.
  4. But I’ve also learned that it’s always about us, not about them. I’ve learned that when I think about  ageing I need to think about what I want as I age, that when I think about poverty I need to recognise that the existence of poverty affects us all, and that the things that matter to me – security, home, love, friendship – are almost certainly  the same things that matter to everyone else.
  5. And I’ve learned that when you talk so that people can hear you, extraordinary things happen. It’s not that’s magically public opinion shifts, but it is that the way in which we all think about an issue shifts, and that shifts what we do, as much as how we describe it.

Framing allows us to challenge our deepest pre conceptions, to understand the ‘received wisdom’ , to interrogate all of our own baggage and to start to do things differently. Mostly I’ve learned that framing isn’t about communications. It’s about everything we do. It’s not a silver bullet, but what it does is challenge professionals, systems and all of us who think we know the answer to think a lot more deeply, and then behave so much more intelligently.

 

Julia Unwin is Chair of the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society and a Carnegie Trust Fellow examining the role of kindness in public policy, as well as holding a number of non Executive positions. She was previously Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  Julia kindly chaired the #socialcarefuture meeting on 4 July whch explore the case for and opportunities to reframe social care

 

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