Public Ownership in Times of Coronavirus

May 19, 2020

Regardless political colors, it is inevitable at this time to think about public health care and public services as a whole. It is impossible not to reflect on how essential public systems and workers are for our collective health and well-being – and how for decades they they have been underfunded, undervalued and eroded.

But people around the world are rallying to fight privatisation and to bring services back under public control. In tandem with the failure of private corporations to provide affordable and good-quality services – such as health, water, education, energy and transportation – support for remunicipalisation is growing. The COVID-19 crisis forces us to rebuild resilient public sectors, but in a way that is quite different from what we’re used to. A new ourEconomy series with TNI highlights real experiences of bringing public services into democratic control and reshaping public ownership through grassroots social struggles.

On a practical level, remunicipalisation involves bringing privatised public services back into public hands by terminating private contracts. It also means reversing the outsourcing of services and re-organising services in-house of the municipality. In other words, it is insourcing.

In the UK, the collapse of the construction giant Carillion in 2018 spurred many local councils to bring services back in-house. Remunicipalisation is also happening in cases where private operators refuse to invest due to bleak prospects for profit. Take for example telecommunications services in rural areas; in the US, corporate reluctance has prompted hundreds of municipalities to develop local broadband networks. In many cases, these internet services have been jointly developed and are co-owned with communities. Local councils were also able to create new public services to achieve their own policy goals; the London Borough of Islington for example established a municipal energy company in 2017 to offer affordable energy services.

The push to remunicipalise public services – ranging from health care to education – articulates a profound critique of privatisation and the free market system. As we know from the example of water privatisation in the UK, profits and shareholder dividends are prioritised over quality services and a healthy environment. In the context of rising social inequalities, climate injustice and political polarisation, the battle against private service provision is also the battle for a fairer, more inclusive and more democratic economy that place citizens and their needs at the centre. The pandemic makes the need for such an economy even more obvious.

The future is public

On 4 and 5 December 2019, the Transnational Institute (TNI) together with 17 other organisations convened the international conference The Future is Public in Amsterdam. At this gathering, we presented the latest results of our research on public ownership models. This inventory of more than 1,400 successful remunicipalisation and municipalisation cases from around the world illustrates not only the global landscape of de-privatisation efforts, but also the diversity of approaches, solutions, implementation mechanisms and institutional set-ups.

For example, the water and energy sectors have different dynamics and processes, and each county has specific regulations and laws. To be able to understand these remunicipalisation processes in depth, we asked 15 activists and experts to share their experiences. In the upcoming weeks, we will share some of these cases with the readers of openDemocracy. From Chile to Spain, these articles show how communities and workers have managed to reverse the tide of privatisation by establishing new public models that enhance democratic decision making and serve the interests of people and environment.

Inspiration from around the world

Beginning in Chile, the Santiago commune of Recoleta is spearheading the country-wide uprising against neoliberalism by building new public services under Communist Mayor Daniel Jadue’s leadership. Students can now attend the new municipal university entirely free of charge, and families have access to new ‘popular pharmacies’ that provide affordable medication.

In the Catalonian municipality of Terressa, a newly-established Water Observatory allows local people to actively participate in the creation and implementation of local water policies. With both citizens and workers’ representatives serving as the core members of its highest governing body, the autonomous observatory ensures accountability in the municipality’s water services.

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A case study from the North African waste sector explains how private operators design contracts to maximise profits by excluding poor neighbourhoods from service provision. The results of this approach include toxic waste pollution and compromised public health. Despite challenging conditions in Egypt, local authorities, community members and workers in Cairo, Alexandria and Giza have nonetheless managed to bring waste management back into public and community hands.

The final two articles were both written by British authors who have been advocating for democratic public management for decades. First, David Hall argues for the renationalisation of water, energy, postal services, transport and broadband. Public ownership of these is overwhelmingly popular among both Labour and Conservative party supporters, and despite Labour’s recent election loss there is clearly still political consensus around this strategy.

Finally, Hilary Wainwright talks about the core challenges and conditions for democratic public ownership that delivers what it is supposed to. Following 30 years of experience with privatisation in the UK, a unique opportunity to talk about state ownership has arisen. The workers who produce services every day are key, and their knowledge should be the core of the design and operation of services. For institutions, this will require a profound shift. In short, we have to think about the nature of the state itself, as democratic public ownership requires a democratic state.

Although each case faces its own country-specific challenges, they collectively help to create a template for strategies for how to move towards democratic economies based on public ownership. A coherent picture emerges out of the diversity: de-privatisation brings possibilities and conditions for the building of efficient, democratic and affordable public services for all, and not just for the rich. The coronavirus is teaching us what is really important – it’s time to rebuild our economies around those essentials. Perhaps the most critical message of the de-privatisation movement is that transformative change through people power is possible and it is happening right now. The five stories published over the coming weeks will tell you more.

The Future is Public: Towards Democratic Ownership of Public Services has been published as a Creative Commons resource in May 2020 and includes 15 full-length stories contributed by remunicipalists and de-privatisers around the world.


Teaser image credit: Evan Clayburg

Satoko Kishimoto

Satoko Kishimoto is a researcher and Coordinator of the Public Alternatives project at the Transnational Institute (TNI) based in Amsterdam. She edited the reports Here to Stay: Water remunicipalisation as a global trend (2014), Our Public Water Future (2015), and Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation (2017).

Tags: new economy, public ownership, remunicipalization