Delivering the political product: Has Harper delivered?
Jennifer Lees-Marshment is a world-wide expert in political marketing who was visiting professor at McGill University in 2009, and who has conducted research and published on Canadian political market
So Harper has called the election, and we need to think what will political consumers judge him on? For the party in government, and the leader in power, a key aspect is going to be delivery. As with business marketing, political products need to deliver.
Opposition leaders don't have to worry about delivery as much; they can make vaguer and grander promises, but Prime Ministers need to have fulfilled their previous pledges and shown that they have broadly delivered what they promised to the people at the last election.
This isn't so easy, as my research with practitioners around the world including advisors to the White House and Downing Street tells us that the public are very reluctant to give credit to politicians for what they get right yet more than willing to criticise them for what they get wrong.
An Australian campaign manager once told me about a sketch from Monty python The Life of Brian where they ask ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExWfh6sGyso) and members of the audience unwittingly produce a long list of successes…the acquaduct, sanitation, the roads, irrigation, medicine, education, law and order…in 21st century politics, pollsters have told me how they sometimes ask focus groups what they think about a government’s record and participants are very willing to complain about what they think a government has failed to deliver, and so they go through a list of what a government has achieved and ‘you can see slightly rueful voters who had been rubbishing the Government start to change their minds a bit as the list of what they had forgotten is conveyed.’
I know from interviewing Harper advisors that in earlier elections the Conservatives tried to get around this dilemma by setting out clear priorities, to try to make it clear to voters what they were offering and what the outcomes would be.
Other governments including the UK Labour government under Blair have also tried to communicate progress in delivery by conveying to voters what has occurred locally to them – such as the money for local schools and hospitals, and having a section in their website where the public can type in their address and find out what the government did down their road. They try to communicate delivery on an individual level.
The head of the UK’s first delivery unit said that governments have got to be great not just good enough to get attention for success. And even then voters still don’t give credit…it’s not like in business where they remember good service or go back to the company who delivered a long lasting and effective product. In his last Party conference speech in 2006 Tony Blair noted how he spoke to a woman who was a part-time worker, complaining about the amount of her tax credit, and he said ‘hold on a minute: before 1997, there were no tax credits not for working families not for any families; child benefit was frozen; maternity pay half what it is; maternity leave likewise and paternity leave didn't exist at all. And no minimum wage, no full time rights for part time workers, in fact nothing.’ ‘So what?’, she said ‘that's why we elected you. Now go and sort out my tax credit.’ Voters are not easy to satisfy.
Also, no government succeeds 100% in delivering – managing government, like all businesses and organisations, is not an easy task, and despite the power of a Prime Minister they cannot just order something to happen and assume it will. Government does not work like that. Delivery – especially in a minority government – involves compromise, building relationships, and working with the front line deliverers such as education and health care staff. There will always be some failures in delivery, but those who have worked in delivery units in the UK and Australia have told me that when this happens politicians would be wise to admit mistakes but then work to fix them and avoid blaming civil servants all the time.
The odds are therefore stacked against Harper in terms of delivery.
So do you think Harper has delivered? Does the public generally think the Harper government has delivered? Have they communicated their success effectively? Where they have failed, have they handled it effectively?
And what further political delivery is Harper now offering voters now shopping for a new government – and is it what people want, but also what Canada needs?