It has been said that the shortest path between a human being and the truth…is a story. Why is it that with all the money spent on collecting and displaying data relating to the success of public services, the everyday stories people tell of how public services work receive relatively little attention? If the people responsible for planning and evaluating public services were able to listen more carefully to the stories people tell about them and the places they live, then maybe they’d be able to learn valuable lessons that they can’t pick up just from looking at the available statistics about a place.
Chamberlain Forum has developed a technique for using storytelling in policy evaluation and development called the ‘Structured Dialogue Method’ (SDM). Based on an approach developed in Canada by Ronald Labonte and Joan Featherstone, it uses peoples’ stories and a structured dialogue around them to evaluate and understand the experience of policies in practice.
Key elements of the approach involve:
- A provocative theme – something to generate animated discussion
- A diverse storytelling circle of around 10-15 people
- Two storytellers willing to share their experience
- Active reflection of all participants – not just the storytellers
- Structured questioning – not general discussion
- A skilled facilitator to manage the process
Piloting the Method
Chamberlain Forum has tested SDM with community groups as part of the Resident University Programme. In 2008/09, the Forum was funded by the regional empowerment programme to develop a pilot project that involved local authorities and public services. To date, the project has:
- Formed a reference group to inform and shape the project, including representatives from Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry and Walsall.
- Identified a series of pilot pairings of public services and communities interested in testing the method
- Updated and refined the user manual for the method
- Trained community facilitators in the method
In 2009/10 Chamberlain Forum will be putting the method into practice in one or more pilot areas, as well as training further groups and individuals in the use of the method.