The gist: Bad habits die hard. Despite our best intentions, when we talk about government finances, it’s easy to fall back on old, all-too-familiar frames that incorrectly cast government as the problem, rather than an important part of the solution.

But new research from FrameWorks Institute not only identifies the dead-end frames to avoid when talking about taxes and budgets, but also offers empirically-tested alternatives that pave the way to more productive conversations about the role of government.

The key to steering the conversation in the right direction is using a “prevention” frame—emphasizing that shared resources allow us to solve problems now, before they get worse—followed up with a “forward exchange” narrative that illustrates how budgets and taxes are the important tools we use to make our communities run smoothly, now and in the future.

Sightline’s November Flashcard is the communication professional’s pocket guide to the extensive Frameworks research report.

Click here for FrameWorks Institute’s messaging toolkit, Talking About Budgets and Taxes.

The Flashcard

Steer the Conversation in the Right Direction

Do start with a PREVENTION frame:  “An ounce of prevention…” Using community resources now to keep problems from getting worse is not only responsible, it’s just plain smart. (Note: “investment” and “crisis” frames aren’t as effective.)

Do follow with a “pay-it-forward” or “FORWARD EXCHANGE” frame: Budgets are the tools we use to set community priorities and taxes are our way of “paying it forward,” making sure things keep running smoothly. Just as taxes paid a long time ago give us the systems and structures we need for healthy communities now—like bridges and clean drinking water—taxes paid today ensure ongoing community planning and services that benefit everyone.

Avoid Dead Ends

DON’T trigger negative associations with government: waste, inefficiency, bureaucracy.

DON’T cast citizens as consumers or talk about “tax burden,” or “taxpayers’ money.”

DON’T set up an “us and them” relationship with government, e.g. promising to “protect taxpayers from the politicians.”

Click here for FrameWorks Institute’s messaging toolkit, Talking About Budgets and Taxes.

Who said it?

Icon of person and question mark“Frame the issues as being about human dignity, fairness and the like, and Americans still respond in progressive ways. Yet frame it as being about “Big Government” and the axis tilts rightward. This is a political battle, playing out as a language battle.” — Sasha Abramsky, Read more here.

November 30, 2010