The School of Athens

The School of Athens
The School of Athens by Raphael (click on picture to view short documentary from Columbia University)

Wednesday 26 January 2011

"Take me to your follower" or "A little learning is a dangerous thing"

Colleagues and scholars from coast to coast, across Bass Strait and all the ships at sea.
Dateline: Australia, Federal Politics 2011.
Here's a question: in how many science fiction films have you heard the alien visiting our planet (usually from Mars) demand in a computerised monotone voice "take-me-to-your-follower"?  
The short answer is: none.
What is it that the mythical beings from another world understand that our political "leaders" do not?  Why is it that they expect those who are in charge of our society would actually be leading that society?
Yet the situation in Australian politics is quite the reverse and as a result has many of the public lamenting the lack of leadership from their elected representatives.  Many feel that all too often their representatives are following public opinion rather than leading it.  Politicians appear as if they are looking to the public to show them in which direction, if any, to head rather than take the initiative themselves and lead the way. 
This is a fundamental problem of Australian politics and it is getting worse.

Why has this occurred?
The root of this problem lies deep in the gradual adoption of techniques by the profession of politics that were developed for the profession of marketing.  This began about 30 years ago and has been increasing ever since. 
Most responsible is the distorted application of two traditional marketing techniques: market research and public relations.
From market research, politics has selectively adopted only one form of qualitative research - the much-vaunted focus group, and from quantitative research - opinion polls, while from public relations it has selectively adopted the most cynical component - spin.
The political world has become addicted to these techniques without fully understanding their uses thereby contributing to this leadership demise.
Market research and public relations are very useful when used completely, correctly and appropriately.  But they were developed in marketing to be used by marketers who compete in commercial markets and while the concepts are generally applicable to politics there is a fundamental difference in philosophy between the two professions that cannot be ignored.
Marketers, by definition, follow a market.  They use market research to understand their customers' needs and wants, and then do their best to deliver on them.  This is the best way to succeed commercially.
The golden rule of marketing is not to work against attitudes but to work with them.  Whether the marketer is serving a consumer, business or government market, the philosophy is the same.
Politics has a completely different philosophical underpinning.
A politician, by definition, is a leader not a follower.  Their success is determined by how well they lead a nation not follow it.  Therefore, waiting for signals from the public, via market research, cannot possibly enable a politician to lead and often the result is policy that is confused, contradictory and incoherent.  This is primarily because the policies, such that they are, are designed to work with the many and varying views of the public so as not to offend anyone.
However, politicians must not accept that the attitudes and perceptions of the public, regardless of how strongly felt or sincerely held, are not to be challenged if challenging them is in the best interests of the nation.  It is their job to do precisely that.
Public relations is also a prime problem.
Public relations is designed, as its name suggests, to manage the relationship with the public.  A relationship based on integrity not deception. Unfortunately, the component of public relations adopted by politics, spin, is designed to do just the opposite.
Public relations is a highly tactical technique that at best can shape issues at the margin.  It is no substitute for proper long-term strategies.  Believing that it is demonstrates a misunderstanding of the technique and it is this misunderstanding, and misplaced faith, that causes problems for politicians.
How the problem in politics develops
The market research findings give the politicians a reflection of public opinion, then the politicians adopt a position based on that research and subsequently try to use their public relations to communicate how sensible this position is.
Yet from the outset the position is phoney.  Is it any wonder that the public is lamenting?
Consider the following example:
If we researched a group of young children and asked them what it is they wanted, many would most likely respond with: stay up late, don't go to school and eat chocolate, cake and ice cream at every meal.
Now which responsible parent would agree to any of that?  They would dismiss the research findings as rubbish and proceed to behave as any responsible parent would even if did not make the parent popular with their children at the time (not to mention the manufacturers of chocolate, cake and ice cream).
Yet, in this example, the politicians would do exactly the opposite. They would follow the marketing doctrine to the letter, that is, to give the customer what they want.  They would agree that the child’s wishes were very reasonable and would proceed to develop policies that would support them.
They would ignore that the child’s health and education would be at risk.  Rather they would use their public relations to communicate how these policies were in the best interest of the child and the nation. 
This is spin at its most ugly.
The political “debate” would then revolve around how late the child should stay up, how many days they could stay away from school and how often they could eat chocolate, cake and ice cream.  Politicians would adopt positions that weren’t offensive to any child and then believe that their position was different to those on the other side.
The media, for the most part, would make little difference, as it would simply report the debate with very little critical analysis, thereby neglecting to expose the truth that the whole debate was based on a clear stupidity.  It would be more concerned with identifying inconsistencies in the positions held by politicians regarding how late a child can stay up or the quantity of chocolate to be consumed.   
There would no serious questioning of the debate's premise.  Not by the politicians and not by the media.
Similarly, if we were to research what it is that children feared the most, a common response might be fear of the dark, especially when they were alone in their bedroom at night.
Again, the responsible parent would not allow such an irrational fear to overwhelm their child.  They would take their child by the hand and walk them around their bedroom, first with the lights on, and have them touch everything they can to feel what the various items in the room felt like. Then they would turn the light off and once again would walk with the child around the room, hand in hand, touching all those same items that they touched when the lights were on to show that there was nothing there in the dark that wasn't there in the light.
Yet our politicians again would follow the marketing doctrine to the letter.  Rather than try to dispel these irrational fears they would legitimise them by suggesting that such fears were reasonable and acceptable regardless of the truth.  There would be no attempt to educate the child.
The spin would then target the nasty dark as evil and explain how the politicians were committed to doing everything they could to bring the dark to justice.  There would a political debate that revolved around who would be the toughest on the dark.
Much of the media, once more, would be of little use, merely reporting and documenting the lengths of the darkness of each night and regularly suggesting there was a dark night crisis.  The public would know it was a crisis because first, their favourite TV newsreader would be standing and not sitting; second, they would be doing so in front of a large graphic that read “dark night crisis”; and third, they would be opening the bulletin with exclusive live crosses to several reporters standing by in various locations in the dark.
Some members of the media would be disturbed that such an irrational fear was gripping our society, however, most would be unconcerned and thus not interested in trying to do anything to rectify it.  Moreover, their sensationalised reporting would actually make the situation worse and effectively make them complicit in the deception.
Of course, the key difference between children and the public is that unlike children, who may be too immature to understand why the parent won’t acquiesce to their wishes, the public does understand that politicians need to make decisions in their long-term interests.  Indeed, they expect them to.  Which makes the politicians’ evasion of taking unpopular decisions so much worse.
These examples, as unorthodox as they may be, highlight the problem that has arisen in politics as a result of adopting techniques that were designed for another profession without understanding either the philosophical underpinning of the profession from which they came, marketing, or how to apply these techniques effectively to another profession, politics.
The difference between being research driven and being poll driven
For any marketer to succeed they must be research driven because what matters to them most is to know what the public wants.  They have no interest in leading public opinion they unashamedly follow it.  Therefore, in political terms, marketers are actually poll driven.
That’s fine for marketers but not for politicians.
A poll driven politician is hostage to public opinion, but unlike the marketer who becomes successful by following a market, a poll driven politician lurches from fad to fad, crisis to crisis, media topic to media topic, talk back radio whim to talk back radio whim, without any clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve.
They look out of control and they are.
A research driven politician, however, would use market research as a tool to inform policy development but not to determine it.  They would also be aware that there are many forms of research from which they can draw, including: backbenchers’ feedback, party member input and direct contact from the public.
They would not be overly reliant on focus groups, which, as mentioned, are only one form of the many techniques that are available to qualitative researchers and fraught with so many problems, not least of which the motivation of the participants attending and that the results are always tainted by the influence of the moderator, that the research findings should be taken as no more important than any other source.
Similarly, they would not be reliant on spin. 
They would use public relations techniques as only one part of their overall communication strategy to explain to the public what it is they are trying to achieve.  It wouldn’t be used as a quick fix (which rarely works) or as an attempt to get out of jail.
These examples also expose a lack of a core belief that should be the foundation stone sustaining all politicians; the absence of which inevitably results in a mindset of following the public rather than leading it.
Core belief ------> policy development --------> leading the public
Void of belief --------> focus group results filling the void ---------> following the public
Without any clear core belief driving a politician, and therefore their policy agenda, the politician is completely lost with no direction, no confidence and no conviction. 
In 1709, Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Criticism, "a little learning is a dangerous thing."  We now see Pope's words playing out very clearly in Australian politics 300 years later.  

The unfortunate development in Australian politics, and perhaps in modern politics internationally, is that our politicians follow public opinion rather than lead it.  

A central reason for this situation is the adoption by the political world of techniques that were designed for the marketing world.  

While conceptually these techniques can be applied to politics, they can only be effective if there is a clear understanding of their philosophical underpinnings.  Currently in politics there is not.

Every politician has the same ultimate objective – to be elected to office.  To be elected the politician has to appeal to the electorate.  But the mistake politicians make too often is confusing the basis for that appeal.  Too many believe, or are told by their pollsters and spin doctors, that to gain appeal with the public you need to cater to every short-term desire of the public, however foolish, so as not to become unpopular.
The point they miss is that the one thing the public wants of its leaders above all is leadership.  Leadership that is based on a core belief and drives policies that are in the best long-term interests of the nation will earn politicians the public’s respect and trust: the two most valued qualities in politics.  Then they will have an abundance of appeal.
The alien visitors understand this; the public understands this; surely it’s time for our politicians to understand this as well.

Take me to your follower!

Or I'll zap you with my disintegration ray gun!

Alexander Pope


  1. Hi, Followed the link from Poll Bludger [credit where credit is due :) ]

    So, do we get the government we deserve or deserve the government we get?

  2. Very interesting read. Arguably the most successful marketers also lead the market rather than developing their concepts on the basis of market research eg Apple

    PS I was in one of your classes at UNSW years ago!

  3. Hi Dom, delighted to see one of my ex-pupils on here.

    It's true, successful marketers can lead the market with new products/services, but they can't lead their customers, they are actually leading their competitors. They are still following what their customers' want, even though it isn't easy to see at the time.

    Political leaders, if they are leading, are also giving the public what they want - leadership. The mistake they make is thinking that what the public wants will be found in focus groups - it won't. That is why they come unstuck.

    Leadership is doing what you believe is in the best interests of the nation and then convincing the public, if required, of the merit of your position.

  4. Perhaps it is because most politicians focus on 'marketing' themselves and their parties with the aim of getting or staying in power. If that is the aim, then of course pandering to the popularity contest is the best tactic to achieve that.

    However, if wanting to actually do some good, that means putting the need of the nation (state, council area) above that of staying / getting in power. In fact, it sometimes means making a far-sighted decision that is so unpopular at the time that losing the seat / failing to win the seat because of that decision is pretty much a certainty. Actually making that hard and unpopular decision - knowing one will go to their political death if they do - takes real vision, real guts, real integrity.

    Its a rare politician indeed that can look 10, 20, 30, 50, even 100 years in the future and see what we need to do *now* to make things better, even if there's going to be short term pain for long term gain. Paul Keating, for all his shortcomings, sorted out our economy so that we survived - even prospered - during the GFC, but lost the election because of it. Peter Beattie risked his career on water recycling. There are no doubt others, but those are the politicians who brave the election backlash, and actually *get things done*.

    Those who are more interested in getting / retaining power are only ever going to give us cake. But thats not always what we *need*.

  5. A good article Andrew; I've often said that the trouble with current politics is, "there are too many politicians and not enough statesmen", which I believe is largely the point you make.

    Sadly, it may actually be worse than that in that I cannot identify a single statesman or stateswoman in the current political arena. There are one or two individuals who have taken statesman like stances in relation to protection of whistleblowers or the environment but these are single-issue individuals who have not yet shown the broad vision to lead this great nation to be all it can be. Sad.

    Can it be that hard?

    One succinct strategy that could define Australia's contribution to the betterment of the World over the next 50-100 years seems obvious to me. It could provide direction to a nation that seems a bit directionless at the moment, it expands on Australia's current capabilities, it would address a need that will become desparate during the 50-100 year time frame, and it would be seen by the World as a significant beneficial contribution while ensuring the growth and prosperous development of Australia.

    Succinctly, "With 3 billion more mouths to feed by 2100 Australia should commit to development that will ensure we can feed 50% of them".

    It isn't hard to see what result this would provide for both the World and Australia. It is achievable, would not require Australia's population to grow dramatically, would utilise and thereby protect our natural resources, and would provide security for Australia as a country and Australians as a people.

    Ping me on twitter if anyone reading this would like to discuss it.


    And to be completely transparent, I have been thinking about getting into politics.


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