How marketers can play a vital role in setting the state straight

Forget spin and blockbuster ad campaigns – the real innovation in marketing is at the sharp end, in the delivery of services and information to the public

So you like marketing challenges? Well here are a selection for you to ponder. The first is to construct a co-ordinated strategy to guide all government communications with the Muslim population across all government departments (education, housing, health, work and pensions, tax and benefits, home affairs and so on), ensuring the target audience is reached and the message gets across – all at minimal cost.

Second, try designing the best possible “brand experience” for users of the law courts, so that justice is not only seen to be done but is felt to be done by all involved – including victims and witnesses as well as perpetrators – across all types of court proceedings, from major criminal to domestic violence, petty theft, personal bankruptcy and marriage breakdowns, all while reducing the overall cost of the service.

And third, make sure every citizen is aware of all the benefits and services he or she is entitled to (along with their related responsibilities), across all central and local government services, in such a way that each individual (of every ability and disability) can navigate his way to the information he needs as quickly and easily as possible, without being overwhelmed by irrelevant detail – once again, at minimal cost.

The sheer scale and complexity of these basic public-service challenges is daunting, to say the least. So here’s a prediction/ as governments wake up to the need not only for more efficient public services, but for services that actually serve the public – that are genuinely customer focused – public and government services will emerge as a magnet for marketing talent and a testing ground of marketing skills and marketers’ creativity.

Put the words “marketing” and “government” together and we tend to think either of political spin (managing the Daily Mail’s headlines) or of high-profile government advertising campaigns to change consumer behaviours: the anti-drink driving or anti-smoking pushes. (COI Communications’ advertising spending has more than tripled in recent years, from &£60m in 1998 to &£189m in 2004.)

from marketer to provider Take an arena apparently as remote from marketing as possible: the legal system. How on earth can marketing skills and insights improve the way it works?

As director of consumer strategy for the Department of Constitutional Affairs, former Shell and BBC marketer Jane Frost is wrestling with just this challenge. If change is to be effective in the public sector, “better” and “cheaper” have to march hand in hand. And that is a marketing challenge, she argues.

Really? The law courts are hardly in the business of trying to sell more court cases. But, argues Frost, selling more is just one aspect of the real essence of marketing, which is managing consumer demand. And in her case, the challenge is to manage demand downwards.

How many costly and divisive marital breakdown court hearings could be avoided if more expert mediation was available, for instance? How much money could this save? And more to the point, how much better a customer experience could it create? (This raises the further crucial question as to who the customer actually is in a situation like this. Is it the litigants? Or could it be a silent third party: the children?)

Likewise, the demand for justice and fair play seems to leave little role for traditional marketing levers such as price or place. But, suggests Frost, the same levers apply universally, and have a role to play in public services if used carefully. What about introducing charges designed to reduce the incidence of frivolous court proceedings, for instance?

Convenience is another hugely powerful lever. How easy or difficult it is to access a service can have a huge effect on demand. This is a key consideration when it comes to encouraging the take-up of services by ethnic minorities.

To tackle these challenges, marketing skills such as customer insight, segmentation and targeting are vital. One fifth of all victims of domestic violence are men, for instance, and it is simply not viable to treat the men in the same way as women.

Frost has even gone so far as appoint customer segment managers who are responsible for the development and co-ordination of services for particularly vulnerable groups, such as 16-year-olds coming out of care (they are suddenly alone in the world with no family support network), or those with learning difficulties or dyslexia having to make their way through the court system. A brand manager isn’t really responsible for a product, argues Frost. He or she is responsible for a group of people sharing a common need.

A knock-on question: how far should segmentation go? Some young offenders are so appalled by the threat of an appearance in court that they are unlikely to ever offend again. For others, a court appearance is a badge of honour. Some people face personal bankruptcy because they have been deliberately chancing their arm. For others, it is a by-product of a personal tragedy. Should they all be treated in the same way? “It’s very, very complex,” muses Frost. “Because there can only be one law.”

Effective innovation is also high on Frost’s agenda. In many areas, new approaches are needed, yet governments don’t have the luxury of research and development labs. Their laboratory is real life, with the ever-present risk of damaging political criticism. How, for instance, do you test the effects of contested versus mediated divorces on the emotional development of children? Also, warns Frost, with a big, complex and multi-compartmented beast such as government, “you have to spend more time looking for unintended consequences”. If a family has got problems with debt, or marriage break-up, the effects on the children may show up at school, in the courts through minor offences, or in the health system through drug-related problems. Joined-up government, and interdepartmental communication and co-ordination are much easier said than done.

Central to all these challenges is efficient, effective communication. For many public services, front-line staff are the brand: they are what the public experience. Without professional communication with staff, the chances of improving service delivery are slim indeed.

a civil tongue James has set himself two priorities. First, “to make the voice of the public heard at the policy table”, so that government develops and delivers services that reflect customer expectations and desires. “Communication needs to be built into the policy process from conception to implementation,” rather than being left as an afterthought, he says.

Second, he wants to “increase public awareness and understanding of government policies”, so that citizens are better able to identify and access public services as and when they are needed. (For an inkling of the scale of that challenge, have a look at James has just initiated a review of the Government’s brand architecture, from megabrands such as the NHS and Royal Navy, through countless departments, divisions and initiatives. Currently, he suspects: “We are brand-light but badge-heavy.”

Public services will always be a political football. As James admits, the sheer scale, the degree of public scrutiny and the complexity imposed by a highly politicised environment create extra challenges for marketers.

But as Charles Trevail, chief executive of Promise, a consultancy that advises in this area, the goal of identifying and satisfying needs at a lower cost is exactly the same, whether it is in selling soap powder or providing public services. It requires a commercial and innovation-oriented, marketing mindset. “Most of us would love easyJet government,” suggests Trevail.

Public services as a crucible of marketing-inspired innovation? Perhaps it is not such a crazy idea after all.

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