How to Win the Public on Policy Change: The Need for Causal Chains

What do the Hollywood Community Plan and programs for Early Child Development  in Australia have in common? Seemingly, nothing. But what I am about to show, however, is how policy proposals can produce counter-productive results when officials fail to follow the simple predicates of causal sequencing – what we call causal chains – in communications.

Research in anthropology and cognitive psychology shows that causal chains play an important role in  engaging people on in a topic and helping them to be more receptive to reform alterations. According to the FrameWorks Institute, a causal chain is a communications tool that features a “clear and concrete explanation of the causes of the problem, including the mechanism by which the problem is created.” Causal chains often serve as a bridge between expert understanding and a more limited public understanding.

When sound causal sequencing is not available in public discourse, policy options become “hard to think.” Consider how the two policy options are communicated below:

Hollywood Community Plan: Like many urban centers, Los Angeles is looking for viable ways to spur community development. The City Planning Commission has developed a series of plans for various parts of the city. The first plan to “go public” – thus becoming the template for the following plans – is the Hollywood Community Plan.

Villaraigosa Endorses Plan, but Fails to Win Public

Mayor Villaragoisa and two members of the city council held a news conference and publicly endorsed the plan on the rooftop of the historic Hollywood Towers apartments. The mayor said:

“Under this new community plan, the growth of Hollywood will be guided by a comprehensive blueprint that cuts red tape, preserves neighborhood character, and accommodates growth around transit corridors.”

In this way, the mayor and his allies are trying to develop a future vision for the city that will create jobs, encourage public transit participation, and fuel economic growth in the area.

Representatives from neighborhood associations and local activists throughout the Hollywood area quickly condemned the plan. As one critic wrote, “All that will be left if this goes through are playgrounds for the rich and slums for everyone else. It is the death knell for Los Angeles.” Residents worried about traffic congestion, skyscrapers that would languish because of a lack of tenants, and the boulevards corrupted by the presence of large, super-graphics billboards.

The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Newton, in a perceptive column, remarked, “[I]n an essential way, these two groups are talking past each other. He concluded that, “the public isn’t as sold as the leadership.”

ECD in Australia: In Australia, a similar dynamic has been unfolding over the last several years around the issue of early child care and education. Government officials have been significantly influenced by the recent research on early child development and have been pushing for reforms regarding quality of and access to child care services.

South Australia’s Minister for Early Childhood Development Meets with Stakeholders

In particular, the government has increased funding to support ECD programs. They have raised the family subsidy to cover 50% of parent’s out-of-pocket costs, dramatically improved the availability of care, and have instituted a National Quality Framework to set improved standards of care across the country. As Kate Ellis, Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth, remarked,

“We know that the first five years of a child’s life shapes their future – in terms of their health, learning and social development – and we want to make that future bright…..that’s why we’re leading reform.”

Despite these efforts, there is a significant vacancy rate in child care facilities across the country, reflecting the somewhat tepid response the public has given the reforms. Moreover, opposition leader Tony Abbott has been an outspoken critic of the reforms. He states,

“The government is increasing the requirements of childcare centres without increasing the benefits that will enable those costs to be met by the parents paying the fees.”

Instead of a discussion about how quality care has positive benefits for development over the child’s lifespan, the Australian public discourse has become centered on cost, and to some degree, the type of care of the government is subsidizing. While it is beyond the scope of this blog to pursue this issue in detail (i.e., critics argue that the reforms do not focus enough attention on occasional care), I would note that this criticism directly plays into a dominant Australian cultural sensibility that the best child care is to be found in the home.

The main takeaway is – much like the Hollywood Community Plan case – the public doesn’t seem to be as sold on the reforms as government officials.

As I intimated at the top of this piece, the common thread running through these two seemingly disparate cases is the failure to properly understand causal sequencing in communication.

According to the FrameWorks approach, causal chains have three “terms”:

1. An initial factor – typically the identification of a problem that is understood to be a problem.
2. A consequence – the negative consequences that will accrue if the problem is not addressed in the manner advocated.
3. A “middle term” –a mediating factor that causally links the problem to the consequence.

These chains function as a domino effect – they start with a clear articulation of the problem and connect it to a negative consequence via an explanation of what caused what.

In both of our examples, advocates violated the first principle of causal sequencing. They both identified problems that were not understood by the public as problems. For instance, many Australians don’t see the lack of uptake on government subsidized early child care as a problem because the cultural norm is based on the belief that children are better off at home being raised by their mothers. To the extent that care is needed, it is occasional and not the long-term care offered by the government.

In the case of the Hollywood Community Plan, many residents did not see a lack of growth in the neighborhood as a problem. In fact, they preferred to have things stay just as they are; and to the extent that they wanted change, they wanted to go back to the “good old days” before urban redevelopment came to Hollywood.

A second problem found in both cases is the failure to tie the “problem” to a negative consequence. Instead, people believed that the reforms would produce negative outcomes – whether increased costs in the Australian case or urban plight in the Hollywood example.

So what should they have done? Let’s start with problem identification. In the LA example, city officials needed to state in clear and simple terms that the lack of economic growth in Hollywood corrodes the current and future quality of life in the area.

In Australia, government leaders must attach future economic prosperity to the development of an educated workforce. So not only is it problematic that children aren’t receiving quality care in the early years of life, the failure to do so ultimately threatens Australia’s competitiveness in the global economy.

In both instances, policymakers need to able to show how development – whether of children or the built environment, leads to sustainable growth. They need to talk about how investments in early childhood education payoff in terms of workforce development down the road or, how thoughtful community development can revitalize urban areas. Using causal chains in communications in both cases can help leaders win the public on policy change intended to improve the future well-being of their communities.



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