Who Controls the Narrative? (Pt. 1)
Part 1: Who influences public policy narratives?
The Public Adminstrator
Article I, Section I of the Constitution grants all legislative power to the Congress of the United States (Independence Hall Association, 2013b). The power of Congress derives from the people who elect them to office. The tremendous duty of developing policy and legislation that represents the needs and desires of citizens but also does not violate the Constitution is a responsibility that falls solely on their shoulders. Theoretically, all influence on policy and legislation comes from the citizens they serve, however, as society has grown more complex, different actors have taken the responsibility of being “the voice of the people” and functioning in protecting the public interest. Policy can create opportunities but who is responsible for the narrative that forms policy?
The public administrator has a fiduciary duty to the citizen that is defined by the Constitution. It is required of public administrators to uphold the letter of the law when functioning in their role. In doing so, the administrator must be guided their own moral compass to pursue common good or “the public interest” (King, Chilton, & Roberts, 2010).
To reach consensus on the policy and legislation that translates the public interest, public administrators aim to achieve what is called the “golden mean.” The golden mean is when public administrators are able to achieve balance between the competing interests of stakeholders. Each interest represents a specific citizen, stakeholder or groups that each have divergent agendas, plans, and purposes. To achieve success, they must be adept at converging the differing values and competing interests to find commonality among stakeholders to form public policy that is based on the public interest (King, Chilton, & Roberts, 2010). Public interest is the guiding force of the narrative that informs policy-making.
The Institutions of Public Policy
In a complex society, institutions are created to translate public opinion into public policy (Burden, 2005). These institutions should ideally be diverse at every level so that 1) they reflect the population they serve and 2) they reflect the range of interests that are inherent in a diverse society (Clark, Jr., Ochs, & Frazier, 2013). However, as the legislature grows and is governed by a complex set of rules, layers of government are created which begins to remove the control of policy-making from the public (Burden, 2005). The narrative becomes influenced by governmental policy and rules as the different layers limit the ability of the citizen’s narrative to influence the policy or legislation. Democracy then loses its core meaning as “rule by the people” because it becomes ruled by the institution and not the citizen.
Movements Shape Media Narratives
Engaging in the civic process in the complicated society we live in requires that we tap other sources to keep up with local, state, and federal policy initiatives. American media has been a source of news as well as a way for citizens to bring to light issues that affect their community. This can be seen as the rise of news information sources that extend beyond traditional television and radio broadcasts. The rise of social media has enhanced the capability of not only receiving information but also allows interaction. Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter Movements were born out of social media and led by the youngest generation of voters, Millennials (Milkman, 2017). And while news broadcasts provide an outlet for citizens to gain information, citizens have also countered by using social media to bring to light their own narratives to mainstream media. Collective movements have become a way for citizens to direct the policy agenda by dictating what the narrative sounds like and who it represents.
Who controls the narrative? The People
The Founding Fathers envisioned representation that was chosen by the people to determine policy and create legislation. The citizens have always controlled the narrative. The way citizens tell their narrative to influence policy has evolved beyond the ballot box. Narratives create policies and policies create opportunities. There are multiple ways for the citizen to share their narrative to direct public administrators to create policies that are equitable and representative of the population they serve. The complexity of society has allowed democracy to become a multi-faceted institution where representation comes in multiple forms and formats. No matter how many layers of government there are, narratives are easily able to be communicated to public administrators. The advent of social media has created new ways for collective action and the weaving of narratives together to influence policy and legislation. The voice of the people can still be heard despite declining voter turnout numbers. It is no longer necessary for citizens to use the electoral process as the only means to influence policy to express their narrative.