5.1 Narrative policy analysis

Narrative policy analysis is a methodology employed to understand complex policy debates where there is uncertainty, complexity and confusion surrounding an issue. The methodology uses tools from literary criticism in order to understand the relationship between different narratives surrounding the issues, and to seek a meta-narrative which suggests a reframing of the situation from which progress can be made by more conventional analysis. As a method for analysing policy it is suitable in situations where conventional policy analysis fails.

As we saw in the Brown and Duguid extract in unit 3, ‘stories’ provide an important basis for research, or narrative analysis. There are many different forms of narrative analysis, and it is becoming an increasingly popular research approach. This is based on the view (Bruner, 1991 quoted in Brown, 1998) that people, faced with the necessity of “constructing and representing the rich and messy domain of human interaction,” tend to “organize [their] experience and [their] memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative – stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on”. This may be to make sense of events, as a guide to action, social/cultural, knowledge producing, or political. Roe noted that ‘stories’ may be: scenarios (stories with a beginning, middle and end) or arguments (with premises and conclusions). Narratives may be analysed through discourse analysis of ‘texts’ or through ethnographic study of interview material.

An interesting study using an ethnographic approach to narrative was carried out by Brown (1998). He did a longitudinal study of the implementation of information technology in part of a large acute hospital with the support of an external software company called Delta. This involved a two phase data collection strategy with 11 formal semi-structured interviews being conducted in phase one, and 15 in phase two. Interviews lasted 60-90 minutes and 24 of them were tape recorded. These interviews were complemented by dozens of informal conversations, and a variety of supplementary documentary materials “reducing the possibility of systematic error and incompleteness”.

It became apparent that the different groups involved (the ward, the laboratory, and the implementation team) were telling very different stories (see Table 4). While all groups espoused a common goal of improving patient care in relation to the implementation project, the narratives surfaced latent motivations which were much more concerned with the groups preserving their autonomy and discretion over tasks. Narratives were used not only to make sense of what had happened, but also to legitimise the interests of the different groups. This perspective has much wider applicability and relevance than the context studied.

Table 3 A comparison of the groups’ narratives

The wardThe laboratoryThe project team
Espoused motivationsImprove quality of service to patientsImprove quality of service to ward staff; Exert control over system developmentGain clinical and financial benefits
Latent motivationsSave doctor and nursing staff time while making minimal adjustments to work practicesRetain existing IT systems, retain existing work practicesAdvance careers, and increase the dependency of the hospital on IT under our control
Development processNot understood by usNot conducted in partnership with usDevolved responsibility to Delta and the users
Going liveTraumatic and problematic experienceDifficulties emerged which exposed the limitations of the systemAs expected, the pilot disclosed problems which could then be rectified
System usageElectronic ordering is disruptive to work routines, time-consuming, and unreliable, Electronic results reporting is unworkableProcessing electronic orders is disruptive to normal work patterns, There are additional problems of speed and reliabilityOur deteriorating relationship with Delta and the lab combined with other development problems meant that improvements to the system were not made
DiagnosisFailure of project team to co-ordinate or meet deadlinesFailure of project team to listen, communicate, or meet deadlinesFailure of the ward staff to communicate their needs. Failure of the lab to co-operate. Failure of Delta to write adequate software
Perceived outcomesTime and energy have been wasted on a so-far pointless systemOur perfectly adequate systems have not been improved uponA technically competent system has been produced, but the project may have been misconceived

In this section the complexity of policy and policy processes have been explored. The aim has been to challenge and widen narrow ideas of what policy is, and to think about the relationship of policy with research. An image of policy and research as two interdependent systems has been presented. The section concluded with the presentation of narrative policy analysis, a method that has been applied to issues where the policy arena has been identified as complex and the policy debate as strongly contested and stuck.

5 Policy research including narrative policy analysis

6 Quantitative modelling-cost benefit analysis