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Podcast Article March 19th, 2024
Delivery • Innovation

Reimagining Government storytelling episode: transcript

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Stories can change lives, communities, and systems. In this special episode, we explore how telling and listening to stories can help to reimagine government.

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[00:00:00 ] SFX Jeff Gothelf: Because it builds compassion, it makes people care, and that's the power of storytelling. 

[00:00:05] Adrian Brown: Hello and welcome to Reimagining Government. My name is Adrian Brown and I'm the Executive Director at the Centre for Public Impact. Now, people love stories. A good story can get us through a 400 page book in an afternoon. 

It can keep us glued to the sofa for so long that Netflix feels the need to check to see if anyone is still watching. Storytelling is intrinsic to the human experience, but what is its role in governance? Today, I'm joined by Rosie McIntosh, our Global Director for Storytelling and Communications here at CPI, to discuss why stories should be at the core of equitable governance. Welcome to the show, Rosie.

 Rosie McIntosh: Thanks, Adrian. It's great to be here.

Adrian Brown: So maybe we could start with your relationship with storytelling, Rosie, and how you've seen it use well in governance. 

[00:00:56] Rosie McIntosh: I have spent the last kind of two decades of my work [00:01:00] engaging with storytelling in all sorts of different ways, from individual to community, to government level. I also am a massive reader in my spare time, like that's my absolute favorite thing to do. And I think like most people, stories are just really important to me. 

When I think about how it works well for the government, I think the most important thing for me is, like how we can use it to build relationships with the communities that we serve. So there are three important elements of that there.

First is that it can help us to understand the issues and understand what's important to communities so that governments can respond better. The second is that we can use it to do that relationship work, to build the relationships both within the community and between the government and the community. And then the third is to use stories to demonstrate things and to change the wider system.

[00:01:48] Adrian Brown: So storytelling is much more than just communications in the traditional sense. 

[00:01:55] Rosie McIntosh: Yeah, I don't, I think, there's not a very clear difference between the two. Of course, the two of [00:02:00] then overlap, but when I think about communications as a communications professional, you do that with a clear objective in mind.

You say, well, this is what I want this person to do as a result of hearing this story, and this is what I want to change. When I think about storytelling, I think let's just take some time to sit together, get to know each other's lives, and get to learn a bit more about what's important and then we'll see what emerges from it.And I think that's a really different approach. The intention is very different. 

[00:02:25] Adrian Brown: And you wrote a blog recently, Rosie, which was asking how, uh, storytelling related to a recent big news story in the UK, which has been about the post office. Would you share with listeners a little bit of what you wrote there and, and how that links back to storytelling.

[00:02:44] Rosie McIntosh: Yeah, it really jumped out at me. I think when the story about the post office scandal came out, a lot of us were upset to learn what had happened, and there was a great injustice that was done to people. 

SFX: Well, this is considered one of the biggest, um, uh, [00:03:00] miscarriages of justice in British history.

Rosie McIntosh: The scandal had existed for years. There had been a problem going back years that people had faced miscarriages of justice.

SFX: Between 1999 and 2015, more than 700 postmasters or post mistresses were wrongly prosecuted and in some cases found guilty and even sent to prison for fraud and theft.

Rosie McIntosh: It suddenly became this huge thing because there was a drama on ITV about it.

So people responded to it because it was told in a compelling way and a story that people could relate to. So the first thing is the sort of power of stories. The second point that it raised for me was that there was an over-reliance on just numbers in the way that the government and the post office were responding to those stories.

So, of course numbers are important. It's not that I think you have to throw them out and just listen to stories instead. But you know, we, instead of actually listening to the experiences of the sub post office masters, the post office chose instead to listen to what the computers told them about how the numbers were looking.

And if [00:04:00] they brought people together and allowed them to share their stories, they would've seen that there were some common experiences in there and there probably would've been a different response. And then the third point is that idea of how stories connect people. Because I think that the people who were in that scandal, there was a lot of shame involved and there was a lot of isolation, and it was only when those people came together, spoke to each other about their experiences that they were able to join up and have a class action and change things.

[00:04:28] Adrian Brown: Yeah, it's, it's such a good example for the, for the reasons you've, you've outlined and the, the multiple ways in which stories have aided understanding in the wider public and between the, the subpostmasters themselves to move that agenda forward in a way that hadn't, it hadn't done for years and years.

And for those outside the UK we might be talking about something which you've got very little, uh, knowledge of, I recognise. So do look up if you're interested. Post office Scandal UK and, and, and all of the [00:05:00] background related to what we've just been talking about will pop up as well. Of course, look up Rosie's, uh, great blog on the topic.

But now perhaps, we'll, we'll move on to some of the people you've been speaking to, uh, Rosie for this episode about storytelling. Who's the first person you'd like to introduce? 

[00:05:19] Rosie McIntosh: So, the first person I spoke to was Tommy Whitelaw, who I've known for many years, and who does some great work around storytelling, uh, here in Scotland.

[00:05:28] Tommy Whitelaw: So, hello, my name's Tommy Whitelaw. I'm the National Lead, uh, Person Person Centred Voices, based at the Health and Social Care Alliance, Scotland. The Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland is a members organisation. We have 3,600 members made up of individuals, organisations, uh, people living with long term conditions, carers, people living with disabilities.

[00:05:51] Rosie McIntosh: Tommy sees the value of stories through his own personal experience. It all started when he was a carer for his mum, Joan.

[00:05:57] Tommy Whitelaw: Oh, stories [00:06:00] kinda mean everything to me is, uh, as, uh, someone who cared for his mum for a long time. I became painfully isolated and lost and felt invisible. And, uh, I stumbled into caring for my mum and kinda stumbled through it, but starting to write a wee blog, I felt was the only place where I sometimes felt brave enough, but able enough to, to write about how I felt.

Which then turned into asking people to share their stories with me and, and actually those stories helped me understand that I wasn't alone, that. other people were facing the same struggles and successes as we were facing.

When I look back at it, I learned more about caring from my mum, from other people's stories than I did from professionals, most of the time. 

[00:06:49] Rosie McIntosh: Tommy could never have foreseen the huge response to his blog. People flooded Tommy with their stories. And he didn't want to see them go to waste. 

[00:06:56] Tommy Whitelaw: I started off just, uh, looking for a [00:07:00] space to share a story and, and, and started writing a wee blog and, and, and social media.

And then people started kinda sharing comments and thoughts back. I kinda made a promise in my blog that I would do a walk around Scottish towns and cities, eh. And, uh, if people would meet me on the walk and share their stories, but there wasn't a template to, so there wasn't a, a kinda headline, you know, I wasn't asking, I was just saying, I've been sharing my story. What is your story? 

And yeah, people started meeting me in the hundreds and the hundreds and now over the years by the thousands and thousands. So people got in touch from Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, Africa, Asia, America, Australia, Europe. Uh, these incredible, remarkable stories that people carry with them every day in their heart.

Uh, and, and I suppose it was a chance for people to share them. And my promise was to take them to Parliament, the [00:08:00] Scottish Parliament at the time. Yeah. And, and, and that's carried on to this day where I kinda travel around the country speaking about those stories. 

[00:08:08] Rosie McIntosh: Like what happened when you got to the Parliament? How did people respond when you shared the stories? 

[00:08:13] Tommy Whitelaw:Yeah, it was, I, I, I made a little film to go with it. Uh, at the time supported by Alzheimers Scotland. We've had these numbers. At the time it was people living with dementia. I think it was 83,000 people at the time, uh, in Scotland. It just becomes a number.

It becomes, it's so impersonal. It doesn't tell you a story. Uh, I went to Hampden, Ibrox, Parkhead and Motherwell to stand in the middle of the pitch and panning around the empty seats to say, ‘if I invited everybody in Scotland here today who had dementia, I would need another football stadium’.

Interestingly, a journalist said,’ I've done, you know, I've written about 50 articles about this in the last five years, and I've typed that number and it's the first time it's, it's really got about people to me. And the idea [00:09:00] was to take the, the letters to the Scottish Parliament on the 10th of November, 2011, and hand them over to the Cabinet Secretary and show that little film.

And in the film I had people reading from their letters. I, I mean, look, this isn't a political statement in any way, but at the time, Nicola Sturgeon was the Cabinet Secretary for Health in Scotland. And I would take, I took the letters to her with my local MSP, uh, Johann Lamont And then Nicola invited me back and said, I want you to come back in six months, with more stories.

And we'd sit and read them. We'd sit and read them together in, in, in, in the office. About a year later, my mum was very poorly and I was writing about it on my blog and, and I just got a message that Nicola Sturgeon would like to come and meet the person behind the story and came to my house at five o'clock one night and sat for five hours holding my mum's hand as she was dying.

So I think stories connect. They connect us and they help us understand. And that's no way, whatever people's, I’m apolitical in all this. [00:10:00] But at the time, you, you engaged with the Cabinet Secretary of the time or the, your MSP at the time and, yeah. And, and that was with no, you know, no publicity. No, I only wrote about that about a couple of years after that happened 'cause I wanted to keep it, the personal story that, that it was.

[00:10:22] Adrian Brown: So that's such an incredible story about stories, about the power of stories. And it strikes me that the ability for the stories to kind of feed themselves and build. So he started with just sharing his own personal story and then that encouraged others to share their stories. And then through the sharing of those stories, it encouraged a, an almost a movement to grow up of, of thousands and thousands of stories, which then engage at the political level. So just that that ability for it to build and grow fueled by stories is so powerful. 

[00:10:57] Rosie McIntosh: Yeah, I think that's true. There's a kinda snowball [00:11:00] effect, isn't it? And I think if you just go up to people and say ‘tell me your story’ they're probably not gonna do it, or you're not gonna hear anything particularly meaningful. But if you're able to go in and engage with vulnerability yourself and share your own story, then you get that connection and you learn something that's much more interesting and helpful. 

[00:11:19] Adrian Brown: This is also a topic, dementia and caring at home for somebody that, whilst we can all look at the numbers and say, well, this many thousands of people have this condition, or this many thousands of people are in this caring situation. The numbers feel so, um, inadequate in actually sharing what that means at a human level and, and therefore how we can respond in a way that supports people who are in that situation purposefully.

The numbers just, just don't really tell us very much at all at that level, and that's where the stories can are [00:12:00] also so powerful. 

[00:12:01] Rosie McIntosh: That's it. I mean, the numbers can tell us how much support people need or design policies in that way, but it can't help us to understand what those people actually need and what will make their lives better.

And I think also as the topic of caring and I guess particularly caring for people with dementia, but not necessarily, is that it, it has always been such a private thing, something that people kept to themselves and that Tommy said that thing of feeling like he was so alone because he didn't know that anybody else was having the same experience.

And it was only when he shared that other people felt able to do the same with him. But I don't think that a government official could just go to somebody's door and say,’ tell me that story’. I don't think it would work that way. 

[00:12:41] Adrian Brown: No. No. And it's, it. There's a power in it being authentically shared. These stories haven't been gathered through a government consultation process.

They've, they've emerged from a community that, that wanted to share those stories and, and share them, not initially for [00:13:00] government or anybody like that to be paying attention, but actually for the, for the people in that community to, to feel that support and that, um, that sense of togetherness that comes from the sharing.

But then as a byproduct, the government and Nicola Sturgeon in this case in particular, did become interested. To what extent do we think it actually changed the way the Scottish Government thinks about this issue, though?

[00:13:26] Rosie McIntosh: There's probably complicated answers to a question like that, aren't there? Do you want to be seen to respond to something if it feels more emotive like that, does it get traction? I don't think it was a big media story. I don't think it was that.

 I think it was just something that, um, it was just a big motivator for people. And I guess politicians are people too.

I know you've heard hundreds, thousands, probably. Are there any stories that, that stand out for you that really made a difference for you and made you want to change [00:14:00] things or made you feel less alone?

[00:14:02] Tommy Whitelaw: Well, I, I, I, I, I can read one out from memory for you. I'll tell you a very short story. So I got a, a, a, a letter from a lady and it said:

‘Dear Tommy. I am writing to see if anyone can help me. I am 87 years of age and my husband is 85 and he's living with dementia, and our life is very, very tough. Both for me as a wife and a carer. As I said, I'm finding it tough and there is no one to share or help me get through this.

I feel so low and so very, very lonely. None of my family or my friends seem to understand what we are going through. Maybe only another person, a carer, maybe understand how we feel. You see, we have been married for 57 years and it's such a happy marriage, but I'm losing my husband and I'm losing my marriage.Please, Tommy, [00:15:00] could you come to her house and help me?’

So I did. I went to meet her. I went to meet her and I knocked on her door and, uh, with actually a local carer group, eh, and I went to her and she took me to the settee and her husband was sitting there and we sat either side and she said, ‘see him there, see him?’ I said, ‘I do see him’.

She goes, ‘I fell in love with him on the day we met, and I've loved him every day since. And I just want our story to end a love story and not the tragedy that we are heading’.

 I haven't read that letter for seven years or something, but I can remember every word of it. It just knocked me off my feet.

[00:15:40] Rosie McIntosh: That's it. And when councils are sitting and they're making carers plans and coordinated support plans and you know, all this stuff, and they're thinking about self-directed support and it's like, okay, great. Fine. Yeah. But, but just listen. 

[00:15:55] Tommy Whitelaw: Yeah. But you've kinda said there about, you kinda summed it up a little [00:16:00] bit uh, uh, Rosie, what they were really were, were stories of understanding or lack of understanding. So I could almost read those letters and guess what's coming in the next page. All depending how we, the people we met along the way. So you could almost get into a habit of saying, I know it's coming next is before I turn this over.

And that was about the meeting of human beings. That was about the meeting, you know, if I meet you and you treat me with kindness and understanding, and I feel listened to. People often think, oh, if you, if you listen, we have to fix everything, but it's not true. Most of the time we just wanted to feel heard. That that lady didn't ask for a miracle in that letter, did she? Didn't ask for money, didn't, you know, didn't ask for 50 services.

She wanted to be able to tell a story why that story mattered and why it should matter to the people who read it. 

[00:16:54] Adrian Brown: That is such a, a powerful story that Tommy shared. And, and of course, just one of the many, many [00:17:00] thousands he's had over the, the years. One thing that struck me listening was how that story reframed the dementia issue as not, not a, a medical condition or a, or something even to be solved in that, in that way, as Tommy was saying.

But actually, this was about a love story and about a couple who met and, and, and that love story wanting to win so that the dementia is,it's part of, it's framed as part of a, a love story and not as a medical condition or any other way that it, that it might be framed. And that seems to me to be ultimately one of the most powerful things about stories is their ability to reframe, to surprise, to force us to challenge our own assumptions about what's happening in a situation and to, to experience another's point of view.

And that seems to be what was happening there as well. Yeah, I think 

[00:17:55] Rosie McIntosh: That's absolutely it. I think when you go in with an idea of what's [00:18:00] the problem here and what services do they need and what do they need us to fix, you miss out on actually hearing what's important to people. And creating the space for it to be a story rather than just an assessment or a consultation makes all the difference there.

[00:18:15] Tommy Whitelaw: The problem with listening is that we, we live in such a fast pace now that we're listening with our first intent to reply as opposed to a first intention to listen. So there's a great study in primary care and this what this was to break it down from not, not just listening to people, you know.

Individuals families, but across our workspaces. And they found it in these really busy environments that people interrupted between 12 and 18 seconds. So you get so busy your, your habit becomes to reply quickly and they found it that the professional did about 80 something percent of the speaking. So there's lots of reasons for that.

If I'm really busy and I do all the speaking, I'm deciding how [00:19:00] long this conversation lasts. If I leave some gaps, you might start speaking and we could be here for ages. But what they did was they said to them right next week, as we follow this big piece of work, when you say to someone, ‘how can I help you today’?

Or, you know, why have you come in today? Whatever that question may be. You can't speak again until the person you've asked stopped speaking and people only spoke on average between 30 and 90 seconds, and that's the problem. Surely we have between 30 and 90 seconds to listen to people who are having a difficult day, a difficult time, a difficult experience.

And the problem with that again, is imagine you're trying every day to tell someone in your life, your work, your space, how you feel inside, and they keep interrupting you and you have to keep carrying that 30 to 90 seconds with you, and then the next person interrupts you and the next person interrupts you.

[00:20:00] Maybe that's how we meet so many people feeling a crisis. 

[00:20:04] Rosie McIntosh: I think one of the things that I find interesting about that is, yes, we could spare a little bit more time for people, and that's not too much to ask, I don't think. But I also think people who work in public service and in government, you know, are under resourced and are very busy and all that matters.

But I think that to not listen to people is like a false economy or a false efficiency. Probably to jump in and think that you have the answers means that you're just gonna end up having to redo things, but to take that extra 20 seconds means you're more likely to find a solution that works for people in the first place.

[00:20:37] Adrian Brown: For sure. And I think it is so difficult for all of us, but especially if your, if your job is to come and solve a problem or, or to provide a service to listen without an agenda, that just seems enormously hard. I can imagine if your job is to provide some sort of service or care [00:21:00] package. Then when you ask how are things going and the person responds with it, whatever they respond, you are automatically gonna be thinking, but how does this relate to what I do?

And, and doing that, that thing that Tommy was saying about sort of, you're listening to respond, you're not listening to listen. But if we could find a way for government in general, I suppose, to be able to listen truly without an agenda, even if it's just for brief periods of time, the value that would flow from that in terms of the insights and the sense of being heard that people would have would, would be huge.

But it's, it just seems enormously difficult given how busy everybody is and how people have jobs where they're expected to deliver certain things all the time. 

[00:21:49] Rosie McIntosh: And I do sympathise with that. Like people go into these jobs because we care and because you want to make a difference. And when you hear a story that sounds so difficult, you know you [00:22:00] want,you want to fix it, you want to make it better. I think it comes from a good place. 

But I think what Tommy's telling is there is just taking a little bit more time, will give a better outcome in the long run.

It's easy to say, okay, right, I'm listening. Tell me a story. But I think I. One of the reasons why people told you stories and is because you started by by telling something yourself.

Like you give a piece of vulnerability and say, here's me, and then that sort of opens up the space for somebody to to respond. Do you think like within a sort of professional boundary, it makes sense for public service providers to have a little bit more vulnerability themselves? 

[00:22:40] Tommy Whitelaw: When we as colleagues or are looking for some support, when we hear stories and we recognise we, we all, we recognise ourself a little bit in them and that allows us to be more kind to each other.

And actually the, the, these stories are that,these conversations usually get boiled down to what's the matter with [00:23:00] someone? We know that, but actually we want them to, to slow it down to what matters to a person and who matters to a person. So what matters to you? Who matters to you? What kind of information do you need?

And nothing about me, without me, we think are the great foundation for, for workspace, caring spaces and listening spaces. 

[00:23:24] Rosie McIntosh: As I mentioned previously, Tommy now leads the Person Centred Voices project, engaging with people around the UK to share the power of stories across a range of public services. 

And am I remembering rightly that you're doing work just now training people in this stuff?

[00:23:38] Tommy Whitelaw: So, yeah, I've been on this chaotic tour, chaotic tour for the last seven years. Uh, so I'm doing about 18, sometimes 20 talks a week in hospitals, universities, colleges, care homes, organisations. And we've tried to do it in different ways. We, we worked with the the five main care homes managed by Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership and just went in and [00:24:00] did some workshops and I left everybody a wee card and says, tell me a colour that makes you feel loved, a line of a poem, a story.

And we collected hundreds of them, and I took them away and worked with a young artist called Xuechang Leng. And he then spoke the most common words into a microphone, into his laptop.

SFX: Love. Care. Making music. Courage. Care. Courage. My dog. Being an auntie. 

[00:24:26] Tommy Whitelaw: And we've produced these big hanging sound waves to hand above the entrance of each care home for the most common words that people told us.

But what he did was because they gave us so many words, we didn't want them to go to waste. So he produced a Scottish landscape for each care home, and it looks like branches and long grass in the distance. And the closer you get to all the words start appearing that the staff told us why they work with us.

Everything's been intertwined by words, stories. What matters to you is a [00:25:00] story. When you have a good day is a story, and finding different ways to, to connect. 

[00:25:06] Rosie McIntosh: And what about the government? Do they still see the value of stories? 

I suppose what, what interests me about your work is like, I. Has, has the government invested in it? Do you feel like in Scotland, the government is spending money on stories and 

[00:25:18] Tommy Whitelaw: I, I, I think so. I think we're getting better. I think with everything, there's a long way to go. I think we're getting better. I think we, we, we've worked tirelessly in this, what matters to you, piece of work across the workforce to try and change that.

Uh, so we now have this, what matters to you group. There's 44 countries involved. Now we set up Then we have a what matters to you world. Uh, and that's by people sharing stories from all around the world, sharing good practice, sharing how they've put things in, based on listening to what matters to people.

[00:25:56] Adrian Brown: So I think ultimately that is a hopeful [00:26:00] place where we arrive at with Tommy that through all of his work where I think he is pushing the boundaries, I think he's still challenging the system to go beyond that which it is comfortable with, or that it, that it does automatically that, but it does sound like it has moved the needle even a little bit with at the institutional level and that, and it has opened up that little bit of extra space for stories to, to creep in. 

[00:26:30] Rosie McIntosh: I think you're right, and I think that's an interesting reflection is that like now that it's become part of the system, how we make sure it doesn't just get absorbed into that and become business as usual, um, and keep pushing.

I can't ever imagine Tommy just becoming part of a system, but I suppose things like the frameworks there are not just becoming yet another form that has to be filled in, but for them to actually be a proper space where you listen to stories and value them.

[00:26:55] Adrian Brown: Absolutely. Well, that feels like a good place to [00:27:00] draw this section to a close. After the break, we'll see an example of how storytelling is uniting the people of Indonesia and across the globe with Co-founder of Cerita Caravan, Ima Abdulrahim

At the Centre for Public Impact, we believe in the power of stories. If you work in government or public service and you'd like to learn more about how telling and listening to stories could improve how you work, we'd love to hear from you. Visit to learn more, to sign up for one of our storytelling workshops or to have a chat about how we can work together.

Welcome back to Reimagining Government. 

[00:27:45] Ima Abdulrahim: Hello. Hi, my name is Ima Abdulrahim. I am the Co-founder and Co-creator of Cerita Caravan. It's an organisation that helps build storytellers one story at a time and to connect people to ensure that they're able to [00:28:00] better tell their story. Whether it's for peace building, whether it's for just connecting with government or to build their community.

[00:28:07] Rosie McIntosh: Here's why storytelling is important to Ima. 

[00:28:10] Ima Abdulrahim: A lot of the work that I do is on democracy and human rights, working with governments and working with communities.Where I live and where I'm from- I'm in Indonesia - we're a plural country. We have many different religions, many different ethnic groups and traditions, and um, and it makes for a very colourful country and very colourful nation.

And the work that I really started, uh, honing in on storytelling, uh, started off actually when things weren't so harmonious in Indonesia. You know, we have a national motto, um, which is. Unity and diversity. And the diversity is something that we, we always, um, celebrate because that's what makes Indonesia unique, that what makes Indonesia the country that the nation that it is.

But when we then started to see those fault lines being deepened [00:29:00] because of political tension, because of political conversation, we started to see that people didn't start talking to each other in the way they used to. So growing up I had neighbours who were of different religions or different ethnicities, and I used to go to a public school and we all talked to each other as one as, as in we're all Indonesians.

But with, with the rise of, democracy actually, with the rise of democracy, with the rise of social media, we saw people starting to have conversations very differently. The sense of identity became very much more pronounced, and people started to talk more as an them and others kind of language.

And so that's kind of where storytelling started to come in, like where we thought storytelling needed to come in because people didn't talk. They talked in soundbites, they talked on on 140 characters, you know, on Twitter. They didn't [00:30:00] have those conversations. So storytelling for us became a tool to have those conversations because when we talk about storytelling, we allow the storytellers to really talk about where they're coming from and what they're what they do. And we found that training people to come back offline, we found that it opened up conversations a lot 

[00:30:23] Rosie McIntosh: Cerita Caravan provided workshops that brought people of different cultures, religious beliefs, worldviews and identities together. At a time when people were focused on difference storytelling, brought them together.

No matter who we are, we all love a good story. 

[00:30:37] Ima Abdulrahim: What we do is we design these, um, workshops. We don't go straight into like, you know, what makes us different. We find commonalities first. Um, I dunno how familiar we are on, um, uh, durian the fruit. It's a, it's a very controversial fruit. The durian is, it's a thorny fruit.

And, um, either you love it or you [00:31:00] hate it. I think, um, maybe Rosie for your, um, reference, maybe like Marmite, . So some oftentimes we just start without questions. Like, people who like durian step on this side. The people who love durian step on this side. We start with simple questions like that, um, which, you know, lightens the mood.

And then we start with like, who's like the eldest? And we find commonalities first. And when you then talk about the differences, it's like, actually, yeah, we're only that much different, actually, we're so much more similar than we are different. And that just brings a different vibe to the conversations that we end up having for the rest of the workshop because someone remembers like, yeah, I may be different from you, but we can go out and have a durian afterwards, or, you know, anything like that.

So it's, it's, it's a method that we use just to break the ice first and to, to get everyone to just realise, first of all, before we're different. There's so many similarities that we have first.[00:32:00] 

[00:32:00] Adrian Brown: So Rosie, I've never had a durian. Have you? 

[00:32:03] Rosie McIntosh: I have never had a durian. No. I did Google it. And some people say it tastes like custard and I do like custard. I don't know why that would be so divisive though

[00:32:11] Adrian Brown:. I suppose as, as was said, is the equivalent for us is, is a Marmite type question. Do you like Marmite, Rosie?

[00:32:18] Rosie McIntosh: I think it's all right. I don't mind it. Do you like Marmite?

[00:32:21] Adrian Brown: I don't think you supposed to be on the fence is the point. 

[00:32:26] Rosie McIntosh: I know, I know. I'm not trying to be controversial, just Okay. Play it down the middle. Small doses. Yeah. But 

[00:32:33] Adrian Brown: So the. Uh, this is a good example now how we've just, just by asking these questions as Ima suggested, it's, it's a, it's an interesting way of just connecting people and getting them to start talking before you start to talk about differences.

And I love, I love that approach. And I also love the, the point about social media in particular, reducing debate down to 140 characters or [00:33:00] whatever. And, and that's just not a great way of starting a conversation, especially if you're gonna talk about, differences, right? 

[00:33:09] Rosie McIntosh: Yeah. I think that's such a good point. I think like the constraints of social media mean that you have to, there's not much room for nuance or caveats. 

And I love the fact that Ima used food as a starting point for, for talking about things and seeing similarities and differences. I was once in a workshop where the opening question was, ‘how does your family cook rice’?

And I loved that because it felt like there were like whole stories just in there, even if it was just using microwave rice.

So asking the right things can help break down barriers between people. But Ima makes the point that how we ask those questions plays an equal role in getting the right responses.

[00:33:44] Ima Abdulrahim: For a very long time, Indonesia was under a dictatorship where it was very centralised and the capital and, you know, resources were handed over by central government to, to villages, and it was always a top-down mechanism.

So we [00:34:00] realised when we had conversations with so many different people, we realised that people were still very much afraid to tell the story of what their village needed because they felt that it was still in the, in the way of the previous governments. They were so used to that. So the way, again, very simplistically, it's oftentimes people think, um, you know, when you ask a village head what he needs, it's someone coming from the capital saying,’ what is it you need’?

And they ask it in that way, what is it you need? And then the village head would, would answer in two different ways, either with pride or with fear. Fear because they think, and if I answer that I do need something, they're gonna scold me. It's like, what? We've given you so much already. And so they'll say, oh no, sir, sir, so we don't need anything. We're fine. We're very good. We're very good. 

Or they'll answer with pride because they wanna show that they've actually built their village or built, built their region. It's like, no sir, of course [00:35:00] we don't need anything. We're doing so well. 

And so it's how, it's in the framing of how it's, the question is asked first. If you then come in from a position of power going into these regions and the villagers asking in a way that then extracts a story from them to tell them what it is needed in that village or what is needed in, in that region for the constituents, you get a different outcome. The, the village, or that region gets the resources that they need, perhaps because of the story or they, they, they're able to then frame their problem in a way that then attracts the solutions needed.

That's kind of what, what I hope storytelling will bring. It's not going to solve it, but it's going to be in a way how, how we frame problems, how we then we reach solutions is through how we then ask those questions. 

[00:35:57] Rosie McIntosh: Ima has enjoyed a vibrant career in government. [00:36:00] Here she shares an example of former boss and how he used the skills of listening to help better serve his citizens.

[00:36:07] Ima Abdulrahim: I mean, in my career I've met quite a lot of people who are like that, who do listen. One I felt, um, really portrayed this was, um, my, my former boss. Um, so I worked with, uh, for, for almost 20 years, I worked with the former president of Indonesia, um, president Habibie. He had this capacity, um, of listening, which was very interesting because you think that because he speaks a lot, when he, when he answers a question, he'll, he'll go on and on and on about it.

And he's a great storyteller as well. And he's, he was known to be a very bright man. He's a genius. He's an aerospace engineer, um, aeronautical engineer. Um, and, uh, and, and, and became who then became a technocrat and became president, became the Minister of Research before he could became president. But he had this ability to just get people to [00:37:00] tell him things.

And, and he, I remember he was only president for a very short time, for 18 months, um, during reformasi. I just saw how people just gravitated towards him, and he was a true leader because he didn't, he treated everyone the same in the sense that, you know, I, for example, I used to accompany him to, to meet other leaders or else to meet, you know, ambassadors or whatever it is.

And I saw how he spoke to them. But then at the same time, you know, his guards and the people that work for him, he speaks the same way to them and listens to them and understands. And sometimes it's like, I, I, I would listen to them and, and they would be telling him details of things of, of what's happening.

And I always think he's a very busy man. Why would he have time to listen to this? And then as soon as we get into his office and, you know, and, and behind closed doors, it says, Ima um, that, that man that uh, that last spoke to me just now, can we make sure we [00:38:00] get help for him, for his daughter, and he can rattle off every single thing that he need, that that man needed.

And I sit there going, you know, because I don't find many leaders or many politicians or like that, that remembers like - that last man and then, uh, the amba and then like, and then the ambassador. He asked for this paper that I mentioned to him just now, can you make sure you send it? So he remembered everything and he remembered because he listened.

I don't find many leaders like that now, that you know, they get, like they'll have some assistant. I, I took notes and I think I missed a couple of things, even, even, but Habibie remembered. But he, and he'll come, it's like, yeah,make sure you help, you make sure you help this man. So listening in, in whichever, in however way you do, um, as, and whatever work that you do, and especially if you're going to be someone in government with, um, that's serving people in a democracy.[00:39:00] 

[00:39:00] Adrian Brown: Rosie, what do you think we can learn from that story that Ima was just sharing there about President Habibie.On one level, he just sounds like an exceptional person who's got a very good memory and was able to use that to really listen and then remember what people have said to him. But they're not, I, I guess that Ima's making a broader point about not just the type of people we elect into positions of authority, but also how they show up to those roles. 

[00:39:31] Rosie McIntosh:Yeah, I think the thing that really stood out for me there was just the, the humanity of it. When people go into work in government, they might have like policies and ideologies and aims, but that if you still stay open to when you hear something from somebody, you're still moved by it and you still want to take action.

That's something that's, that's slightly different and I think is something that's really valuable in a leader.

[00:39:53] Adrian Brown: If I was to play devil's advocate a little bit here, I can imagine [00:40:00] some people listening to this and thinking, well if people in position of power are just listening to what people around them are saying and then acting on that, then if you are lucky enough to be able to talk to them, then you can, you can persuade them of something.

But isn't that a little bit random as to who they've spoken to and you know, isn't this the problem with stories that some people may argue that it's, it's, it's actually just really random as to whose story you've heard last or, or who's been the most compelling in, in the way that they've told their story, that that starts to influence you.

[00:40:35] Rosie McIntosh: Yeah, I think it's an absolutely fair point, and I think in that situation, there probably is some that's just like the luck of the draw that you happen to be around and someone listened to you. I think when we think back to what Tommy was talking about earlier, and he heard all these unique and individual and valuable stories and love stories and stories of people's lives, but yet he said he started to be able to guess what was gonna come next.

And that wasn't [00:41:00] because they were predictable, but it was because there were patterns that emerged. I think if you have like a proper storytelling programme that you invest in and you create space throughout your working life to listen to it, then that's something that's slightly different. It's not just responding to the last or the most emotive story that you heard.

It's noticing where there are patterns and where there are areas that require more attention, and that's probably something that's slightly different. I also think we should caution against thinking that more kind of numerical or quantitative data is somehow more reliable than the data that we hear through stories, because real people's experiences are likely to be just as valuable.

And I, I suppose, again, thinking about President Habibie and his excellent memory, and I certainly don't have that, but I know that the things that I do remember and that I remember from many years ago are, are the stories that resonated with me.

[00:41:53] Adrian Brown: So maybe what we've learned through this episode, actually, Rosie, is that storytelling [00:42:00] isn't just a random walk through people's memories and experience, but there is an art to doing this well and that's something that it's worth reflecting on as to how to do listening well and, and the storytelling well so that it does help to inform the kinds of decisions maybe the policy makers should be taking and uh, and it can be used purposefully. 

Rather than just simply being on its own, you know, listening to people sharing their stories, which aren't, which is a good thing, but it, it's something bigger than that as well. If, if I'm sort of understanding correctly.

[00:42:38] Rosie McIntosh: Yeah. I think it's something that we can all get better at, that we can all develop our skills at, but it's also not rocket science. Um, at its heart it's about relationships and building trust with people and respect and listening.

[00:42:56] Adrian Brown: So that concludes this episode of Reimagining Government. [00:43:00] Thank you to my co-host, Rosie McIntosh.

If you are a public servant or a policymaker, we want to hear from you. How do you see the government using storytelling to help serve with more legitimacy? You can call into the show through our answer machine. Head over to government and leave us a message. And please be aware that we may play these out on the show.

If you'd prefer to write to us, you can email to let us know what topics we should cover in future episodes. And finally, please remember to leave us a review on your favourite podcast platform and let us know your thoughts on the series.

Until next time, I've been Adrian Brown. [00:44:00] Goodbye.

🎙️ Reimagining Government

Stories can change lives, communities, and systems. In this special episode, we explore how telling and listening to stories can help to reimagine government.

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