Why now?

Squeezed from all sides [link to charts from presentation]: Our vision for human services is that everyone has the opportunity to thrive and live meaningful lives. Instead we are experiencing deep funding cuts and flat charitable giving that leaves human services organizations ill-equipped to address the complex issues facing their communities. This threatens the very infrastructure of our communities leaving millions in desperate conditions. The value and rich potential of human services is simply not resonating with the public.

There’s an understanding gap between what the experts know to be true about human services and what the public believes to be true about human services. [link to Mapping the Gaps slide] For example, experts know that there can be a host of structural issues that may cause a young child to do poorly in school (including nutrition deficits, the neighborhood in which they live, and family income) and that improving those circumstances must be part of the solution. The public, however, often has a limited view of the problem and believes that individual choices are solely responsible for how she fares in life and is fully capable of changing those circumstances. Unfortunately there are many more such gaps between practitioners and those we serve, the broader community and policy makers.

To bridge these gaps, the human services sector needs to start leading the conversation, instead of being forced to react to the bad news du jour. As a sector there is agreement that we have been left on the sidelines in the national conversation about how to attain and sustain a satisfactory quality of life for all. Now is a pivotal moment to spark a new conversation that moves us toward big-picture and collaborative solutions, employing language that appeals to a wide audience.

So, what can we do? 

The field of human services is seeking to build broader and deeper public support to improve lives in the diverse communities we serve. Instead of throwing darts and hoping we hit a bulls eye, we are using a research-based model for public engagement developed by FrameWorks Institute. Our goal is ambitious yet realistic: we’re creating a new narrative that will do nothing less than change the policy climate for human services and ensure that everyone has the opportunities to succeed and live meaningful lives.

How can we redirect the public conversation toward more productive territory? FrameWorks’ approach – Strategic Frame AnalysisTM – offers concrete, actionable tools for rethinking our communications. We can look to this evidence base to make decisions about the strategies we all use and the stories we all tell. Frame elements – such as values that orient the public toward the common good, metaphors that help the public understand how systems and structures lead to outcomes, and narratives that establish a collective action frame —are among the tools this approach offers. The most powerful themes, analogies, and positioning for our field are being identified through large-scale surveys, in-depth interviews and other research with the public – sampling thousands of Americans – and will yield a framing strategy that will resonate with diverse audiences across the country. Rather than just continuing with an intuitive approach to messaging – rolling the dice as to whether it is a message the audience is willing to or wants to hear – we will have empirical evidence about the most reliable frames to advance, and which to avoid.

This matters because these days ideology often trumps legitimate problem-solving and unsubstantiated perceptions trump facts. People are polarized, emotional, and stubborn about what they believe to be true. We’ve all experienced this! Messaging will bump up against this dynamic making it impossible to convince someone (a voter, a resident, a legislator) that your work has value, but framing will allow you to find connections and new avenues instead of roadblocks.

Read this for the technical stuff. Recent advancements in cognitive and social sciences offer new insights into how people process information – with highly practical implications for changing the way we communicate about our work.

Cultural models are deeply held and durable patterns of thinking that are widely shared across members of a particular society. These models strongly structure people’s interpretations, opinions, and policy preferences on social issues.

Cognitive heuristics are highly routinized, fast, implicit ways of making decisions and judgments. They are a built-in feature of human cognition, but under certain circumstances, they lead people to express preferences that, upon reflection, they are open to changing.

Frames are cues for how to think about the topic of a communication – for instance, whether a social problem is a matter of individual or collective responsibility.

Why do these concepts from anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines matter to the human service sector? For one thing, they can help us better understand the untapped power of our communications capacity. Opinions are frame-dependent: people will respond differently to the same core idea depending on how the idea is described. So, to build public will, it’s essential to find the most effective way to frame the need for greater attention to support human development. Of particular relevance to those of us that use data, facts and evidence to advocate in the policy arena, the findings indicate that people typically interpret incoming information in highly automatic ways that can make it difficult for people to incorporate new ways of thinking about an issue. Prior understandings are almost impossible to dislodge with a “just add more information” approach to public engagement; instead, savvy communicators know that they have to shift the context of a conversation in order to reach higher ground. This is what the Reframing Initiative has set out to do.

How can I reframe my work? 

We are currently conducting the final stages of research on how we can reframe the human services sector. Look for the recommendations in Summer 2015. In the meantime, there are insights from the early phases of research that we can all start putting into practice now.

Refer to our Do’s and Don’ts of Framing for some quick tips on making this work for you and your organization.

One very practical and powerful strategy from Strategic Frame Analysis is to “lead with a value, not the issue.” It’s a truism in American politics that most people don’t think about most issues most of the time. Yet, think about how many of our communications begin as if the public is already deeply engaged with our way of thinking. Policy briefs often start with the findings of a literature review – often communicating a crisis frame in the process. Announcements of a new policy tend to begin with the name of the program and perhaps the problem it solves – missing an opportunity to establish a collective stake in the issue by tapping into a deeply held value.

The FrameWorks Institute has shared with us a number of tried and true values for communicating that are relevant to human needs and services, that resonate with the public and that can help bridge the divide. You can apply these now in your communications with your members, policy makers, and the public. Whether you and your partners are working to help fragile families or to ensure that more children succeed or to enable more older adults and people with disabilities to live long and thrive, starting and ending a case with these frames elements will help you promote your work in a way that makes sense to people who are not caught up in the day to day of service delivery.

Fairness between Places.  We need to be fair to all communities by building an infrastructure that will give everyone the opportunity to meet their potential. Simply put, it is only fair that every American has the opportunity to live in a healthy and successful community.

Pragmatism. Our most important goal should be to use a common sense approach. We must identify the things that aren’t working and replace them with services that function well. If we fail to act with this goal in mind, our country will continue to use impractical approaches instead of proven techniques.

Prevention. We can do more in our country to prevent problems before they happen. Instead of postponing our response to problems, we should use our resources today to prevent them from becoming worse. When we postpone dealing with things, they get bigger and cost more to fix later on. We would all be better off in the long run if we took steps today. 

Interdependence.  What affects one part of the nation affects us all. We need to give greater support to programs that get people to work together to solve social problems, which helps bond our communities together and allows us to deal effectively with the problems communities confront.

Still not sure how to do this? Here are two examples:

The Campaign for Grade Level Reading has helped mobilize coalitions in dozens of communities to promote reading at grade level by Grade 3. The Campaign reflects the concepts of fairness between places, pragmatism and prevention in how it presents the gap between kids with certain advantages and kids who lack them.

  • The Campaign speaks of a Census Track Lottery (a play on both census tract and the tracking of children by skill level), whereby a child’s chances are affected by where he or she lives. (Fairness between Places).
  • Its aim is prevention, an upstream solution (reading at grade level) to prevent negative consequences later on. (Prevention)
  • And it offers a pragmatic solution – mobilizing community resources for reading readiness. (Pragmatism)

Insert Thematic example here.

I get it. Now how can I get more involved?

Sign up:

Contact Ilsa Flanagan, Director, Reframing Initiative to learn more about how to be a partner in this work.

Share your work. Let us know how you are using these frames and we may highlight you in an upcoming publication.

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