Strategic narratives: How can we use storytelling to justify public spending?

Every project involves difficult decisions and as the project develops and grows more complex, the clearer it becomes that trade-offs are required. Convincing elected officials to openly support investing significant amounts of public money or make a substantial policy change can set an even higher bar. This makes the story for the spending, its strategic narrative, mission critical.

A strategic narrative can shape what a team works on. It forms the basis of any funding decisions and how a project is promoted (and defended) initially and over time. This story is at the core of a project and sets out how and why it is discussed across homes, businesses, and public forums whether those conversations are positive or negative. 

There are six key questions on strategic narrative development that should be asked initially and throughout any project:

Why do this and not that, or nothing?

A key part of a robust business case for investment is demonstrating the impacts and benefits of what is proposed against one or more reasonable alternatives, including the option of not doing anything. The widest possible consideration should be given to impacts and benefits as part of this process while ensuring it remains meaningful and able to be undertaken in an acceptable amount of time.

What is being considered and over what period of time can be important considerations. Similarly, any discount rates used to understand the short-term value of long-term benefits need to be appropriate to the specific project under consideration. 

Do we have the right decision-making tools?

An essential part of ensuring a good decision is to ensure the approach being used is appropriate for the task at hand. For example, benefit-cost ratio (BCR) can be a useful tool in setting out the economic case by simplifying many complex variables into a single common ratio of whether expected benefits will exceed forecast costs.

But what if the tool is flawed? For example, common BCR modelling assumptions used in the UK assume costs associated with driving will fall each year while the cost of rail travel will forever increase. This is neither accurate nor assured yet still informs decisions on where to spend billions in public money, often without interrogation.

Are we speaking to the right people?

Public investment, particularly in large infrastructure projects, needs to be supported across the community and not just by those who will benefit. It is a key distinction between public and private sectors where the latter only needs to convince those who will buy their product or pay to use their service.

For example, the suburban car driver should ideally agree that public investment in a regional railway far from their city is at least a worthy cause. Ensuring they don’t feel angry or that limited taxpayer funds would be better spent elsewhere can even be used as a measure of strategic narrative effectiveness.

What to say, how and when?

No two audiences are the same, with messages and methods needing to be tailored to the specific context. However, the core strategic narrative of a project must always stay the same even if different elements are emphasised at different times.

A forum of business leaders would expect to hear more about things that a local community advocate is less interested in. The challenge for communicating the rationale for a project is for the team to understand who is being engaged, what their existing position(s) may be, and how to best approach answering any questions, allaying potential fears, and avoiding misunderstandings. 

Are we telling a story?

Most people do not think in the same way that project documents may list a series of facts and figures about a project. Instead, we need to engage in storytelling by working out what is most relevant to different groups and then presenting the relevant information through the kinds of narratives that will stay with someone far longer than statistics on journey time savings or annual reductions in carbon emissions.

It is the stories, ideas, and anecdotes about a project that are more likely to be repeated over time. These are what individuals and communities will use when discussing a project and whether it is something they wish to support or fight against.

Why are we still doing this?

Too often this question is not asked enough, or not asked critically enough. Teams can get lost in their day-to-day activities and lose track of the problem they are trying to solve, or the need for a new product or service. For example, the technology sector is now littered with former companies that claimed to be the “Uber for [insert service]” but could not be sustained beyond initial funding. 

Engaging with internal and external stakeholders before, during and after a project is essential to maintain awareness of the strategic narrative and make any adjustments based on changing circumstances.

Getting the strategic narrative for a project right is not easy and can take time. Having the right people on your team and ensuring all involved have the same core understanding of what they are trying to achieve is essential. If not, then the story of spending will just be a story. 


Get our latest news and opinions

We are Steer

Yes, you are in the right place. After 40 years, we have changed our name from Steer Davies Gleave to mark our growing international footprint and our expanding portfolio into sectors beyond transport.

Explore our new website to learn more about Steer: who we are, how we work and what our future holds.