The Senseless Census…Why Government Needs to Take a Marketing Approach to Developing Policies and Programs.

As someone who has been in the marketing game as an executive, manager, professor, consultant in the private and public sector for close to 35 years,  I sometimes wonder if politicians and their subordinates and bureaucrats have any idea  how to do stuff that is cost efficient and makes sense. We are living in an age of sound bites and instant decision-making where no one has the time to think things through and worst people don’t do their homework before making decisions. And oh yes when they do make a decision they don’t have the foggiest notion how to properly communicate it.  

How do you explain the stupidity of our municipal government cancelling the light rail project in Ottawa which will cost taxpayers 100 million dollars with nothing to show for it? After a few years of planning and endless meetings a decision was made to build a North South Light Rail. But after contracting the project out some new politicians come into power and recommend that we scrap the North South Line because we should be building an East-West line. Great… but if the right decision was to go East-West line why didn’t we do this in the first place and save ourselves millions of dollars. How are decisions made? Did the bureaucrats and politicians not know that the need was for East -West?

 The most recent blog I wrote about the provincial government’s  eco fee disaster which clearly demonstrates the lack of strategy and basic common sense. Did anyone do any thinking before they introduced the new eco fee? Apparently not.  The poor Minister of Environment had to eat humble pie and cancel the eco tax.  Now the taxpayer has to pick up the tab.

We have a Minister responsible for our Treasury Board at the federal level who wants to build more prisons, although crime rates are decreasing. His concern seems to be with unreported crime. So, let us follow the logic here: The problem with the current system is that it doesn’t punish crimes we’re not entirely sure are happening severely enough. That’s why the crime rate is so high, even though it’s not, but it would be if people reported all the crimes that are taking place.

Of course the crème de la crème is the government’s decision to cancel the mandatory long-form census questionnaire. Now actually I always felt that the government should rethink the census. Although the info we get from the census is great, for marketers and business much of the data comes to us too late. There has to be a way in this modern age of technology to speed up the process.  I also agree that threatening people with imprisonment if they don’t answer the mandatory long form was ridiculous and frankly Orwellian (although nobody has ever gone to jail for this crime). I also felt for many years that there were too many questions (and yes some very intrusive and probably should have been omitted.)

 But what I would have expected the government to do when making changes to the census is consult with the users of the census. The data generated by the long-form census questionnaire provide decision-makers in the public and private sectors with a deep and rich set of facts about Canadians, facts that are reliable at the local, regional and national levels.  Perhaps the Minister and his officials should have gone out and spend some time talking to people who use the data. Yes Consultation!

As the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) wrote in their letter to the government

“ the concern about the Government’s decision to cancel the mandatory long-form and introduce a voluntary  new National Household Survey (NHS) —  (which would have a wider distribution one in three households than the long-form questionnaire .) The concern of the MRIA is that the response rate will likely be substantially lower and the resulting data less robust, given that hard-to reach segments of the population will not likely be included among respondents. The experience of survey researchers and social scientists is that those in lower-income groups, ethnic minorities, and the wealthiest citizens are least likely to answer questions voluntarily.

This they claim would lead to skewed data and doubts about the accuracy of information that is relied upon by public policy and business decision-makers. Without robust census data, it will be exceedingly difficult for governments to respond effectively to shifting patterns of need in the populace or to introduce changes that provide the greatest value for money. One particularly problematic outcome of the elimination of the mandatory long-form questionnaire would be the eradication of the only reliable, national source of information on aboriginal educational achievement.

Census long-form questionnaire constitute crucial input for the sample designs of other national surveys. The long-form data are also combined with other survey data to compute and extrapolate rates for key social and economic indicators. For example, local health authorities can use their own survey data combined with census data to calculate rates of health service utilization and many other vital statistics.

The new National Household Survey – may be biased on important dimensions such as income, education, housing status, and many others. Researchers across the country, working on projects in all areas of public policy and business decision-making, will have no data with which to correct for these biases. It will also not be possible for researchers to compare numbers from census to census, and analyze trends. Source

Now you would think the people who make a living from polling people 365 days a year might have some valuable information to impart. Why didn’t someone in the government think of talking to people who represent the public opinion research and market intelligence industry in Canada before making decisions on the census?

So why Marketing?

Yes the decision to build a light rail transit which did not focus on East – West as opposed to North-South did not make sense. But why did we not know this at the beginning of the process. How was the decision made?

And yes it makes sense to charge a fee to keep discards out of landfills and, if possible, to recycle or reuse their components. Companies that make and sell stuff, and those of us who buy it, should take responsibility for what happens when we’re finished with it.

And maybe there is a good reason to build new prisons. Some of our prisons are very old and need substantial repairs. Maybe we need different prisons i.e. less maximum security and more medium security prisons to house white-collar crime which may be on the rise or maybe we simply want to put more criminals in prison for a longer time to keep our cities safer. I am certainly not opposed to being tougher on crime.  But what’s the deal with building prisons because of unreported crime? Who came up with that one?

Yes we certainly need to rethink the census. For example some countries have done away with the census but not in the name of privacy. The Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and other European states have extensive administrative data bases that contain the same information that Canada gathers in the census. These data include registration numbers that are used to create linked data bases for all individuals living in these countries. The residents (citizens and non-citizens alike) in these countries are obliged to provide this information. All interactions with the state (health, education, taxation, the justice system, migration) are recorded in these data bases.

My beef with governments is not necessarily what they do but how they do it.

What would happen if government took a MARKETING APPROACH which requires them to get a full understanding of the environment in which they are making decisions and consulting with clients, customers, users, stakeholders, partners before introducing new policies, programs, products and services? A marketing approach would ensure that there are clear messages (based on solid marketing research) with clear rationales behind the decisions taken on any given initiative

In an era when governments need to be more responsive and accountable to the needs of the public, marketing can help governments accomplish this goal. With governments, crown corporations/agencies and other public institutions spending significant dollars delivering programs and services, there is a need for increased efficiency, accountability and transparency in the processes used to deliver these initiatives

I would be glad to sit down with policy makers at all levels of government to show them how taking a marketing approach to their program and policy challenges will result in better decisions and save the tax payer millions of dollars..

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