Current conceptions of marketing in government
When marketing is used in government, its impact is often limited because it is dogged by a short-term, fragmented approach influenced by political time cycles. Government marketing is often characterised by an overemphasis on broadcast communications, including digital platforms, to the exclusion of a more citizen-centric approach focused on listening, relationship building, and social networking. Within government the application of marketing principles is also limited by a number of structural barriers and practices that include a lack of cross department coordination, inappropriate budgetary allocation systems and a lack of adequate return on investment, cost benefit analysis, and value for money audit. These barriers are compounded by a chronic lack of marketing capacity and capability within many government organisations.
Marketing is also often perceived as a function that can be applied after policy and strategy has been set. It is viewed as a set of procedures dominated by communications planning that are applied to inform and motivate people to comply with whatever advice is being disseminated by government. Social marketing is often seen as a third order function behind policy development and strategy formulation. In many government departments, most activity labelled ‘Marketing’ is in reality smart communications, sometimes informed by citizen insight.
Stuck in the past
Marketing in government needs to catch up with the rest of marketing. Marketing in the commercial sector is not about persuading people to buy stuff they don’t want or need: it is about building relationships that are mutually beneficial and developing products and services that people want, and delivering them in ways that delight and enrich people’s lives. Marketing today is also about respect and responsiveness. If you want someone to spend some time even considering what you have to offer, you increasingly need their permission to do this. The days of aggressively assaulting people’s space and time with pushy promotions are disappearing fast. Now promotions need to be intrinsically valuable to people if they are to be effective. Marketing is focused on value creation, building brand loyalty, and aspiration. The principles of relationship marketing, permission-based marketing, and service dominant logic need to be used by those interested in advocating the wider integration of marketing in the governmental sector.
A majority of government marketing practice is stuck in the past using limiting principles and tools to analyse, develop, implement, and evaluate social policy. This self-inflicted limitation, together with status quo bias in favour of existing social policy development processes and the antithesis held by some politicians and policy makers referred to earlier, equates to a powerful set of barriers to a more strategic application of a modern marketing principles within the government sector.
Developing marketing capacity and capability across government
What is required if marketing is to be fully utilized within government is the need for a managerial cultural shift towards a more citizen-informed and engaged approach and one that seeks to apply marketing principles to the development of all social policy and strategy. This means positioning marketing directors in posts with authority and the development of more marketing and market research expertise in all government departments. Governments could assist this process by developing professional training programmes and establishing centres of good practice and research excellence.
“Annual budget allocations based on historial precedent fuel short-term thinking and end of year budget dumping”
One of the most important components of a strategic approach to applying marketing within government is the allocation and management of marketing and communication budgets. In government departments the control of marketing budgets is often split between marketing and communication departments and policy leads. Policy leads often have power to decide on what marketing budgets are used for. This lack of control by marketing managers in government over budgets can work against a strategic and consistent approach to delivery. Annual budget allocations based on historical precedent also fuel short-term thinking and end of year budget dumping. If a more strategic approach was applied to government marketing programmes, budgets would be set up and measured in terms of return of investment, cost benefit analysis, and value for money audit. Strategically, marketing budgets from across different government departments should also be able to be pooled or transferred as often social issues and challenges cut across several departments responsibilities.
A strategic approach to commissioning and using market research is also a key component that needs to improve in much government marketing. Often individual departments or teams within a single department will commission research to support specific programmes. Often this research and the analysis performed on it is not made available to other teams who may find it helpful. A more joined up and strategic approach to commissioning marketing research should be a top priority when developing an overall strategic approach. A strategic plan to gather and disseminate target audience and stakeholder research across departments should also be developed.
Marketing will inevitably become more central in government policy making, strategy formulation, and operational programme delivery. This shift is being driven by the shift in power that is happening all over the world related to the growing wealth, improved education, and a growing expectation horizon amongst more and more of the world’s citizens. This change will demand a response from governments, many of which continue to operate an elitist top down approach to policy formulation and social programme delivery.
A more citizen-focused approach will be necessary to meet citizen’s’ aspirations and expectations of government and its agencies. This shift in approach will however be delayed as long as governments continue to ignore, misinterpret, and misapply marketing. Governments should be encouraged and aided by professional marketing organisations academics and marketing practitioners to establish systems and policy development environments where marketing can be comprehensively applied to enrich social programmes.
The job of government is to support and enable people to live great lives; to encourage and regulate markets that create well-being, foster civic coalitions that promote social good, and protect and support citizens. It follows then that governments need to be able to understand and engage citizens to optimally deliver these roles. Marketing is the best policy tool to assist governments in achieving this.
Featured image credit: Westminster Bridge by Atanas Chankov. CC0 Public Domain via Unsplash.