Narrative Change and Public Services Spending and Provision

by Alhassan Adam, Esteban Castro, David Hall, Satoko Kishimoto, Jenny Nguyen, Kyla Sankey, Vera Weghmann

For too long we have been sold the narrative that public services are a thing of the past. Public services are too inefficient, public spending is too high, and people don’t want to pay for it. Since the public sector is incapable of addressing new societal challenges, it is inevitable that private companies must play an increasingly important role in the delivery of public services. These dominant narratives around public sector spending and public services have been repeated by politicians, experts and media figures so often that they appear as obvious truths.  They are framed, rehearsed and repeated by consultancy firms, international financial institutions (IFIs), politicians and media figures to create a coherent and persuasive narrative about the need for massive public spending cuts and the impossibility of collective solutions.

A new report by the University of Greenwich’s Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), funded by the Open Society Foundation (OSF), challenges this orthodoxy.  Narrative Change and Public Services Spending and Provision” shows how, far from accepting the dominant narrative, people across the world have very different conceptions of how public services should be owned and run. The framings through which people perceive the role of public services are much richer and more complex than that of the self-interested individual or consumer commonly assumed. In different historical and political contexts, people can have very different cultural understandings and social norms about the role of public services that draw on a sense of human dignity, solidarity, collective responsibility and the common good. Our research also highlights how these alternative narratives have inspired citizen’s groups, social movements, public sector workers, and politicians to oppose privatization and defend public services. In some important cases, these alternative narratives have successfully precipitated a change in broader change in public attitude or even resulted in privatisations being reversed.

Alternative narratives around public services emerge for a range of reasons, including resistance to corruption, private sector abuse, poor quality of the service or labour violations. Some of the most powerful alternative narratives have emerged at the local level. In some cases, they have been driven by political leaders, in others by civic campaigns, social movements, feminist and anti-racist groups, or religious leaders. There can also be cross-fertilisation between political parties and social movements in narratives on public sector spending. While social and labour movements can mobilise and build support for narrative change, political parties and leaders amplify these messages and give them voice at the municipal, national or international level.

Examples can be found across the world.

  • In Chile, what started as spontaneous protests against a hike in public transport fares rapidly escalated into mass demonstrations precipitating a major shift in public attitudes towards privatization of basic services. With the success of the referendum for a the new constitution, the aim is to not only dismantle the privatised systems, but also incorporate clauses guaranteeing funding and access for a range of public services including healthcare, education and water. 
  • In Ghana, it was a right-wing opposition party, the New Patriotic Party, that mobilised a coalition opposing the previous World Bank-driven health policy based on cash payments in the health sector. Ghana now has health insurance which came out of the alliance between community activists, professional bodies and left-leaning parties that formed the “Alliance for Change”.
  • In the 2015 Delhi elections the newly created Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) defeated the two established parties through an anti-corruption campaign. The AAP and Kejriwal moved rapidly to provide universal and improved public services and halted privatisations, including in healthcare, schools, water and energy.

These cases and many more demonstrate how a combination of social mobilization on issues like corruption and price hikes together with political action can be scaled up to bring about major narrative shifts at the municipal, national and international level.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought a sudden and massive rupture to ‘business as usual’, not only during lockdowns but also as Western countries proceed with vaccinations and look to the future beyond Covid. It has brought the role of the public sector to the forefront of national and global discussions. During lockdown, the crucial question revolved around which services and workers are truly “essential”. Whereas in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it was the banks that were “too big to fail”, during the Covid crisis it has been basic services— health, transport, education, that have been “essential”. In this way, the pandemic has opened a space for new narratives about the role of the public sector not only in confronting crises, but also in various aspects of daily life.

It is possible that the legacy of Covid will be to create a strong impetus behind narratives supporting public services. This includes a strengthening of narratives about the role of the state in steering the economy, including the collective re-shaping of social and economic life, large public spending on measures to deal with the pandemic, public investment in developing and administering vaccines, and large-scale intervention in the economy as a whole, including paying workers’ wages through income support schemes.  Narratives around the need for a Just Transition led by public sector investment are also gathering strength. But the development of economic recovery policies remains contested, with the IFIs favouring a rapid return to market-based policies with a small role for the state and public services and austerity, for example by insisting that expansion of healthcare must be financed by reduced public spending on other services.

The most encouraging example for the potential narrative change coming out of the pandemic  comes from the USA itself, where discussions around public spending have changed dramatically under Biden. Biden is proposing to spend an unprecedented amount on state-planned, tax-financed renovation and expansion of both infrastructure services and new public services, such as social care,  and fighting climate change.  Biden has also called for all countries to introduce a global minimum corporate tax rate. This creates an opportunity for governments in other countries – including lower to middle income nations – to call for bold, far-reaching spending plans for public services.

The challenges Biden faces in getting the programme through were well understood by President Barack Obama after his 2009 stimulus bill failed to make an impact. The biggest mistake, Obama acknowledged, was thinking that the job of presidency was “just about getting the policy right” rather than telling “a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose”. Our project aims to gather stories showing just how changes in policy, and ultimately broader shifts in power, can be achieved by building powerful alternative narratives.

  • The report can be accessed through the PSIRU website at
  • Lead contact: Vera Weghmann
  • PSIRU and the Institute for Innovation and Public Policy at UCL are jointly organizing a global online conference in June 2022 on the theme of “Narrative change and public spending, services, and provision”. It will bring together leading academics and also social movement and trade union activists. More details can be found at the PSIRU blog page