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  • Writer's pictureJohn Copps

Why public services can benefit from a greater emphasis on storytelling

To coincide with National Storytelling Week, John Copps looks at the case for more storytelling in public services.

Every organisation – including those delivering public services – needs to be able to communicate clearly why it is there, what it does, and how it does it.


Another way to say this is that all public services need a good story to tell.


This is because, to do their job well, public services need the confidence of their users, the support of the public, the loyalty and commitment of the people that work in them, and the backing of leaders to invest scarce resources.


Ways of communicating value can take many forms. But, going back to our childhoods, it is stories that have always been the way we have learnt to understand and make sense of the world. As humans we are emotional creatures with a need to connect with each other.


The new public management of recent decades has furnished us with a wealth of approaches for target-setting, monitoring and evaluation, and performance management. It has made us all fluent in the language of outputs, outcomes, and statistical comparison.


Of course these techniques have their uses, but one of their impacts has been to reduce the emphasis on storytelling.


Why does this matter? Well, because storytelling has the power to motivate and change minds. When someone tells us a story, we catch a glimpse of a view of the world that is different from our own and can change how we see things.


Stories are what strikes a chord with the public. It is no coincidence that some public services are more trusted than others. It is stories of doctors saving lives or teachers going above and beyond to help children that tend to most resonate.


Within organisations, storytelling helps to remind public servants why they are there, and sets the tone and culture. Stories are part of the fabric of an organisations – the good and the bad. We all have a story of our boss doing this or that, and consciously or subconscious this can influence the decisions we make and the permission we feel we have to act.


Listening to stories can change our minds. If ‘coproduction’ means anything, it is acting on the experiences relayed to us by people using services to change how we do things.


Storytelling also wins arguments. A senior colleague from Newcastle tells the tale of trying to convince a government Minister to invest in their service. Despite providing pages and pages of briefings with statistics to show impact, what really made the difference was that Minister listening to the experience of a child using the service. The story went on to be relayed by the Minister in several of the Minister’s speeches and tipped the balance in favour of the investment.


I believe that stories can be a powerful agent of change in public services. Having a clear overarching narrative is the key but so are the little legends that permeate organisations and beyond. Ultimately public services are about people and stories allow us to connect in a very human way, and give us a language that we can all understand.


Watch this space for more from Mutual Ventures on how public services can use stories to support strategy and organisational development.


To watch our recent webinar on the Power of Storytelling in Public Services click here.

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