Victims, Villains, and Heroes: Understanding Public Policy Debates

By Melanie Mayock

Planners are surrounded by controversial issues and heated policy debates. Whether it’s a development proposal, environmental regulation, bike lane, or myriad other issues, planners have to deal with controversy in many ways—when gathering public input, trying to find common ground, or explaining the policies chosen by elected officials. Understanding fundamental patterns in public policy discourse can help us make sense of the arguments, find potential points of agreement, and communicate persuasively when needed. 

I investigated this subject in my recent Master of Urban Planning/Master of Public Administration thesis at the University of Washington. Using research from communications, sociology, and political science, I constructed a model of a Public Policy Story, a strategically framed narrative designed to convince others to support a policy action. The story includes three plot elements—problem, cause, and solution, and three characters—victim, villain, and hero.

I applied the model to a 2011 debate over a temporary fee to fund King County Metro. Through a systematic examination of editorials, op-eds, and letters to the editor, two primary stories emerged:

Story 1: Bus Cuts



Problem:  Bus Cuts
Impacts: traffic, economy, equity

Victim:  Bus Riders, Drivers
Broaden the victim group

Cause:  The Recession
Reduced sales tax revenue

Villain:  [None]
No person or organization  identified as causing the problem

Solution:  Vehicle Fee
Temporary solution

Hero:  County Council
Has the power to prevent cuts


Story 2: Inefficient Metro



Problem:  Tax
Impacts:  economy

Victim:  Taxpayers

Cause:  Metro Inefficiency

  • Pays bus drivers too much
  • Politicians always raise taxes
  • Values violated:  efficiency, trust

Villain:  Metro, Politicians

  • Acted with willful intention
  • No specific individuals named

Solution:  Reform Metro
Cut bus driver wages and low-ridership routes

Hero:  [None]

While the Bus Cuts story has a compelling problem description, it lacks a strong causal story, making the link to the solution more tenuous. The story also does not show a specific person or organization at fault, which reduces the emotional impact. On the other side, fee opponents do not go into depth about why a new tax is bad and who is hurt, but focus instead on Metro’s inefficiency as the cause of the tax proposal. They have a stronger causal story and villain—it’s the fault of Metro and politicians that taxes may increase.


There are several ways to use this framework:

  • If you are involved in a controversial issue, listen to the arguments for the elements of the story. If there is agreement on what the problem is, that can provide some common ground.
  • Pay special attention to the villain. This is the most powerful part of the story, but also the most risky. Blaming a problem on a group, organization or person tends to rally people, but can also inhibit problem-solving.
  • Are people telling a story in which government is the villain? While distrust of government is beyond the scope of this article, I have a few pieces of advice:
    • People tend to distrust individuals or organizations they see as powerful. This is why government and big business are frequently in the villain role—people see themselves as helpless compared to these entities. Being transparent about the decision-making process is one way to reduce distrust.
    • Put a face on “the government.” Vague and powerful entities tend to make the best villains; they aren’t human. Showing the human side of a planner or elected official may help.


For a practical resource on communications, check out the APA Planners Communication Guide. For more information about my research, please contact me: [email protected].

Melanie Mayock is an Associate Planner/Policy Analyst at BERK Consulting. Before getting her Master’s in Urban Planning and Public Administration at the University of Washington, she had a varied career in public affairs, marketing, and advocacy. 


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