Today I want to make the case for social marketing becoming a core part of the public policy-making arsenal was the beginning of a speech Getting the balance right: the role of soft power and hard power in social change by Rt Hon Alan Milburn, MP, the former British Secretary of State for Health, at the World Social Marketing Conference in Brighton last week. This was, for me, the highlight of the meeting: a politician who clearly understood and spoke knowledgeably about social marketing and its implications within the broader social change context we are all working in. Rather than comment on what he said, with the permission of the conference organizers who kindly sent me his text, you can read excerpts I selected (and have added emphasis to in some places) on his vision for the potential role of social marketing in the new politics of empowerment, conversation, social capacity building and engagement:
From its beginnings in government public information campaigns and through its development since the 1970s into a formal discipline, social marketing is today a life-changing movement. Here in the UK the National Social Marketing Centre has become a repository of good practice and real support to those leading a legion of local efforts to reduce teenage pregnancy rates, tackle alcohol abuse and support sustainable living. Led by the Department of Health, the UK Government has recognised the potency of social marketing in bringing about desirable changes in society. Social marketing is at the heart of many government-backed campaigns, supported by substantial resources from the public purse, on issues like drug awareness, road safety and healthy eating.
Until recently, however, much of your work took place under the radar, ignored by politicians and journalists alike. That is changing. Books like Nudge and Yes have hit the best sellers lists. Their contents are devoured by politicians and public policy makers. Their thinking now finds its way into how policy - from pensions to organ donations - is being constructed. Some even argue that the convergence of insights from social marketing, neuroscience and behavioural economics forms the basis for a new paradigm for social change.
So social marketing has become fashionable. You are no longer in the shadows. You are firmly under the spotlight. And of course it’s always nice to be popular. But before we all get carried away it’s important to recognise the limitations as well as the opportunities inherent in what Robert Cialdini calls “the new science of persuasion”. Social change is complex. Behavioral change even more so. It is rarely amenable to a simple single solution. Getting people to eat well and smoke less are desirable social outcomes. But they require a mix of policy tools.
So to fully realise its potential as a force for social change it should do so as an adjunct and not an alternative to what the State does. This is where I believe those on the Right of politics are making such a fundamental strategic error. By rejecting the role of the State they have drawn the wrong conclusion from the modern world. To meet today’s policy challenges requires a new balance between what I will call soft power and hard power. Improving health, beating crime, regenerating communities cannot happen if society has to choose between either having an active state or having active citizens. It is not either/or that is needed. It is both. So I will make the case for a politics of change that has at its core the empowerment of individual citizens and their local communities. And I will argue that social marketing’s biggest contribution lies not simply in persuading people to change but in helping empower them to do so...
We can glimpse what that new future could look like. During my time as health secretary I championed an expert patients programme to give people, mostly those with chronic conditions, the tools to better manage their own care. By putting the individual patient in charge of managing their conditions - the food they ate, the exercise they took, the medicine they used - the programme succeeded in reducing physiotherapy visits by 9%, hospital outpatient visits by 10% and accident and emergency visits by 16%. And as we seek to increase the proportion of spending on public health from a miserly 5% across the developed world - by focusing on preventing not just treating illness as I believe we should - the way to do that is not by preaching at people but by empowering them. Giving people, through our unrivalled UK primary care network of pharmacies, GP surgeries and community services, the practical help they need - blood pressure monitors, testing kits, food co-ops - to improve their own health. To do that we need to convert patients from being passive recipients of care in a system that denies them both power and responsibility to being in charge and more responsible for their own health. That will require a new focus on providing accessible information and proper support to empower individual citizens. And, given that different people have different starting points, it will require a national drive to grow social capacity so that across all communities, and not just some, people can make the choices that are right for them. It is here that your expertise and insight about what drives change is so sorely needed…
…when it comes to social change it is surely inconceivable that poverty or disadvantage can be overcome without the State or politics playing its part. Poor people are hardly able to spend their way out of poverty. They need help with education, housing, training, childcare. So it is no more acceptable for today’s Conservatives to blame poor people for failing to live healthier lives and urging them to get on their exercise bikes than it was for a previous generation of Conservatives to blame people for being out of work and urging them to get on their push bikes. There is a danger of a new naivete: that the science of persuasion can replace the art of public policy-making when it comes to tackling what are deep and complex social problems. Worse still, that nudging becomes little more than an excuse for rolling back the State and disinvesting in public services.
No one denies, of course, that individual citizens have responsibilities. But so so do politicians. The trick is to get the balance right between what each does. Take one example. Over many years campaigns that exhorted people to stop smoking and warnings about the consequences of doing so undoubtedly helped many smokers quit. And in the process these social marketing techniques helped create a permissive climate for political action. In turn that political action, in the form of tax rises on tobacco and smoking cessation on the NHS, helped shift the climate of public opinion still further in favour of tougher action culminating in a legal ban on smoking in public places. The smoking ban could not be nudged into existence: State action had to bring it into existence…
The challenges of the modern world call for the State to play its part but also to know its place. It is only the State that can equalise opportunities throughout life and empower its citizens. Equally only citizens can seize those opportunities and realise their own aspirations to progress. So just as the Right is wrong to reject the State’s role, the Left must avoid the trap of countering an argument about less state by making a case for more State. What is needed is a different sort of State: one that empowers, not controls.
This I believe is the basis for a new politics which has at its core a modern progressive cause: the empowerment of citizens. That can only happen if we get the right mix of policy instruments. In foreign policy circles the contemporary debate following the West’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan is about the necessary balance between hard power and soft power. Hard power is expressed through military force and economic sanction; soft power through careful diplomacy and economic or cultural engagement. Some argue a preponderance of one approach to the other, but the lesson of history is surely that a mix of both approaches is necessary. In the Cold War mutual assured nuclear destruction and NATO may have provided deterrence and safety, but the fall of the Berlin Wall owed at least as much to the attractions of a dynamic mixed economy, blue jeans, the Beatles, the Voice of America and the BBC World Service.
Similarly I think the concepts of soft and hard power can be used to delineate the various instruments that are needed to bring about desirable behaviour and social change in a complex modern society. By “hard power” I mean the use of laws, regulations and formal incentives to reinforce social norms. By “soft power”, I mean the array of community engagement and social marketing tools that you are so versed in. In my view getting the right balance between soft and hard power is the key to unlocking social progress and opening the way to a modern relationship between state and citizen.
I welcome the fact that the National Social Marketing Centre is taking a leading role in this debate through its own reviews and the growing recognition within the social marketing profession of the need to achieve the right balance. The soft power/hard power distinction finds an echo in the contrast the Centre draws between “strategic social marketing” (that is upstream work using your insight and evidence base to influence public policy making) and “operational social marketing” (that is downstream work implementing social marketing techniques on the ground). It is when the two are allied that most progress is most. Conversely as a recent research report into the effectiveness of UK government funded social marketing campaigns highlights, a lack of integration between a campaign and broader governmental strategies can undermine its potential impact on positive behavioural change.
This suggests to me that public policy makers have not as yet fully appreciated the benefits that social marketing and behavioural change techniques can bring to bear on making social change happen. One way of correcting this understanding deficit would be to make training in social marketing and behavioural change part of the package that public officials in health, education, estates management and local government automatically receive. So that those officials engaged in community regeneration, for example, would have their focus as much on hearts and minds as bricks and mortar…
In 1945 the new idea was for power to be vested in the central state and its policy expression was nationalisation. In 1979 the new idea was for power to be vested in the free market and its policy expression was privatisation. In 1997 the new idea was for power to be vested in reformed institutions and its policy expression was modernisation. Now the new idea is to vest power in the citizen and the community and to make its policy expression empowerment. This is the new political territory. Neither the Right nor the Left have in truth, yet fully come to terms with it. Whoever does so first I believe will win both ideologically and electorally. I hope you will play a leading role in making it happen.
[Ed Note: Now to find the US politician who can deliver as eloquent an argument.]
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