Say it with meaning (and evidence)

James’ rent was very high. He was working a zero-hours contract on the minimum wage when he became ill and then couldn’t afford the rent. He spent time sleeping on his friends’ sofas and floors while his physical and mental health got worse. When James approached his local council and said that he was homeless, he was allocated a flat and given personalised support to help him cope. Things got much better.

James’ story was presented to a representative survey sample of 2,180 adults by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Centre for Homelessness Impact (a what works centre). It was one among five different narratives about homelessness included as an experiment to see which were effective at moving public opinion. Drawing on past research on framing, it used an individual example with a link to a structural cause but went further by citing an evidence-based intervention: “This approach, called ‘Housing First’, is different because it provides long-term housing with no strings attached. There is strong evidence that it works in other countries, but it hasn’t been tried in the UK yet.”

We found that the five different narratives did not tip the balance of opinion — the same sentiments continued to prevail after stimulus was shown — nor were shifts in opinion exclusively negative-to-positive e.g. some people moved to more neutral or non-committal answers. But James’ story was most effective at moving already-positive opinion, particularly in terms of further weakening the perception that homelessness is a consequence of an individual’s actions and the salience of the issue. It also swayed people, although to a lesser extent, to recognize the effect of homelessness on the whole of society and the importance of using evidence of what works to make decisions.

Our survey also signalled the importance of evidence in the public’s eyes. A majority would like to see important decisions made based upon evidence of what works (57% choose this from a list) as well as the views of those affected by or at risk of homelessness (55%). These featured ahead of expert’s views, the cost/amount of money needed and public opinion itself!

This supports the Centre’s End it with evidence campaign but also underlines the potential for saying it with evidence. Just as evidence can help ‘make’ policy, it can help ‘sell’ it. Other research has similarly shown that the public place a little more importance on statistics in monitoring the progress of policy than they did pre-pandemic, but support is strongest for using evidence alongside experience.

Evidence needs personalizing to be relatable but, without evidence, we might struggle to comprehend the scale and nature of the issues at hand. For example, we found people substantially overestimating the incidence of homelessness but also the prevalence of alcohol/drug dependency among those experiencing it. Just one in three know that official statistics on homelessness don’t include counts of the ‘hidden homeless’.

The implications of this reach beyond homelessness. Whether James is to be helped with his housing, his health, his safety or his job prospects, he will need policy-makers who are able to put evidence to work to make decisions. But the people in charge also need to use evidence to tell a more positive story that something can be done and something has been done, creating a sense of efficacy and agency.

For more, see Ipsos MORI’s report.

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Research Director at Ipsos, interested in understanding society and public opinion. Views my own. Pre-April 2020 blogs available at LinkedIn, tweets @BenIpsosUK

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Ben Marshall

Research Director at Ipsos, interested in understanding society and public opinion. Views my own. Pre-April 2020 blogs available at LinkedIn, tweets @BenIpsosUK