Putting a Human Face on Government

Storytelling about community-led partnerships is changing the way government works—and creating a new narrative.

By Eliana Reyes and Ellie Sandmeyer

The decline of the coal industry in Southeast Kentucky—where few other industries provide jobs—left thousands of laid-off miners facing a stark choice: file for bankruptcy, or leave their homes and communities behind to seek work elsewhere. But in Pikeville, a town of roughly 7,000 people, entrepreneurs Charles “Rusty” Justice and M. Lynn Parrish had a different idea: build a new business that would train former coal miners as computer coders.

The result was Bit Source, a company that recruits former miners and trains them to do web development, mobile application design and more. Coal miners have proven adept at coding. “I think one of the big misconceptions about coal miners is that we’re given up on as being intellectually inferior,” said one Bit Source hire. “When your life depends on the decisions you make, you don’t last long if you don’t make good decisions and have a real refined critical thinking process.”

Justice and Parrish are creating jobs locally while helping other businesses get connected to the Internet. But they didn’t do it alone—smart federal investment helped make their idea a reality.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the Obama Administration recognized the importance of locally grown efforts to drive development in hard-hit areas. The White House encouraged innovators in federal agencies to open new lines of communication with community leaders to better understand residents’ needs and support local efforts. At the same time, agencies sought feedback on their work—asking what was effective and what could be streamlined.

Seeing this flexible, collaborative approach bear fruit in communities across the country inspired the Ford Foundation to learn more. So they enlisted the team at Hattaway Communications to gather stories of “community-led partnerships” and elevate key lessons from successful efforts like Bit Source.

Interviews with more than 50 local leaders and federal innovators working in urban, suburban and rural areas produced a catalogue of stories that would inspire local residents and federal personnel to innovate and collaborate. The story-gathering process also led to the development of a storytelling framework the foundation could use to describe the players who make community-led partnerships work and principles that guide the practice.

Principles Framework

Consistent and concrete language about what people are doing to improve their communities helps define the solutions people can use in their stories.

These tools are being used by leaders in philanthropy, in the administration and throughout dozens of agencies to show people how to work with government to make their hometowns great places to live, work and raise family.

Putting people in the picture shows how government works.

A Google search for the word “government” produces faceless symbols of power—imposing buildings and gavels, for example—that make it hard for people to understand what government does or how it works. Community-led partnerships are driven by people-to-people interactions among federal personnel, local leaders and community residents. Sharing the lessons of the community-based approach began with putting a human face on government—describing who makes the approach work and what they do.

Players framework

The Players framework helps storytellers understand the different characters in a story—and what role they play.

Brain science shows that putting people in the picture, as protagonists in a story, helps audiences understand abstract or complex ideas such as “how government works.” Audiences better understand how systems work when they are explained in terms of people taking actions.

Storytelling tools help explain the role of each player who makes community-led partnerships work. Local leaders, for example, work together with federal partners to identify a community’s needs and assets, and to develop a plan for development. Another player, community organizations, can contribute the resources and manpower to carry out those plans. These descriptions help people see themselves in the narrative and imagine the role they could play in improving their own communities.

Strategic storytelling can change the narrative about government.

Tackling complex challenges, such as turning around a decaying downtown or retraining workers for the new economy, can take years. Along the way, community-led partnerships can produce different types of success stories that keep people engaged in the process—and even improve perceptions of government.

Some stories are about federal innovators testing out an innovative idea. Others show government personnel re-designing programs in response to local residents’ perspectives, or speeding up community revitalization by connecting local residents to crucial resources and expertise. All of these counter the prevailing, distant image of government, instead portraying it as innovative, flexible and responsive to people’s ideas and concerns.

By sharing the lessons of community-led partnerships, the Ford Foundation is helping federal innovators change how government works with communities. These success stories ensure that the Obama administration’s collaborative approach will outlast its time in office—and potentially drive a new narrative about government.