Dial P for Policy

On September 16th 1999, Dutch television introduced an innovation. 12 contestants were let loose in a villa laden with cameras and fenced off from the world – bar one communication channel controlled, and often manipulated, by the show’s producers. Big Brother TV was born. 

The format took the Dutch (and subsequently other nations) TV gazing public by storm. To viewers delight (and critics disgust) the contestants exhibited an endless display of shameless, ego centric, vindictive and petty behavior while lying, plotting and inciting in pursuit of the prize. The off-chance of spotting contestants in various degrees of indecency attracted viewers too. If it all sounds too familiar, so it should. Because where back in 1999 such antics were relegated to the entertainment sections, by 2016 they reached the front page.

The victory of the Brexit campaign and then Donald Trump unleashed a torrent of recriminations, analysis and debate. Much of it interesting and thoughtful. But for a blog concerned with innovation and product management, one aspect remained neglected: the lessons to be learnt from successful product launch. The link is obvious. The techniques of product and political campaigns have been borrowing liberally from each other for years. This year’s campaigns progressed (or regressed, depends on ones taste) one step further in blurring the lines between what is deemed acceptable. (From product management prospective it might have not been a political story at all: Donald Trump – an established TV brand – merely staged a successful brand extension from the late night shows to the 9 o’clock news.)

But while campaign techniques are old hat, political and product campaign approaches still hugely (or should I say bigly) diverge. Clearly, the stakes of political campaigns are higher. Not only do political choices have (supposedly) a larger impact on lives, there can be only but a single winner. If a country could have several contrasting governments (or policies) living peacefully side by side, in the way a Mercedes Benz and a BMW are parked on a driveway, emotions would have been cooler. And hot-headed emotions are clouding judgement. That is a shame. Particularly the losers of this year’s campaign could heed to some lessons from product management.  

1.       The customer (voter) is always right

Yes. I’m sure you know this one, but you possibly don't think it applies to elections. I know, because I’ve read much of the analysis and even share the dismay. Let’s make it clear: This does not mean that your opponent is right. It means that the voters have a right to be wrong. The vote belongs to them and they have no obligation for choosing the best product about. From the point of view of a product owners, a failure of the customer to select their product, no matter its merits, is the product’s owners fault alone. Granted, the winners of this year’s political campaigns have been economical with the truth to the point of frugality. Yet, and this is an important lesson, if you blame the customers for not wanting your product (or think them too stupid or foolish to understand) you are not very likely to discover what they really want, or convince them the next time round.

2.       Customers chose according to their own best interest

This seems an innocuous claim when it comes to product selection. But this too is often rejected outright when it comes to elections. People are supposedly lumped into tribes that determine their voting preferences: “working class”, “urban graduates”, “southerners”, whatever. Sure, there is a correlation between these groups and voting preferences – but it has more to do with shared interests than common origins. According to a study, traditional Labour voters in the UK tend to switch alliance to Conservatives after winning a big lottery. At this point voting for Labour stops matching their interests.

People have a tendency to believe that while they vote for the common good, their opponents consider only narrow vested interests. The good news is that they are right about their opponents. Take Brexit for example. I tend to agree that the Brexit is a disaster for Britain and Europe. But I (and almost everybody I know) belong to the class of people that have profited most from the ability to travel and work across borders, and are comfortable living in any major urban center with theaters, Espresso bars and good restaurants. For “working class” voters the virtues of the common market are not as profound while the costs are felt strongly. Former US treasury secretary Larry Summers called it the “Proximity” effect. During the pre-internet era, being close to creativity centers secured your future. Since entrepreneurs had to set shop at close distance, for supervision, providing employment for everybody else. With technology induced globalization, this is no longer a requirement. There are many winners in the new order. But there are losers too. And they vote accordingly. Of course, one can dispute whether the vote for Brexit is in the voters' best interest, and whether dials can be turned back again, but you should not doubt that they believed it was.  

Similarly the distaste of immigration. Citizenship of a wealthy country confers monetary value in terms of entitlements to basic services (income support, health services, education). For the well-heeled the added income is negligible (particularly as they pay the taxes to provide for it), but for the impoverished, it represents a large portion of wealth. The more state resources are shared with newcomers, so goes the perception, the less value they entail. Hence they treat this erosion of wealth with the same hostility the rich reserve to tax hikes.    

3.       The product should provide a solution to the customer’s real needs

Anyone who is busy with innovation knows this: The first step is finding out the jobs the customers need to complete, the pains are they feeling, and the gains do they wish to accomplish. Then you try and innovate a solution that achieves all that. The greatest innovations open access to a cherished preserve of the elite. Think of Ford model T, Windows OS, and the Internet. Whether policy makers are aware of this, is open to interpretation. They certainly don’t seem to behave that way.

Even for a pro-European, the propensity of pro-European parties to call for ‘more Europe’ no matter what’s the question, reeks of snake oil. And the same could be said on almost any other political party peddling a favorite policy. That politicians are able to negotiate reasonable deals behind closed doors is to their credit, but they should be able to project reason while campaigning too.   

Would that work when the public is so split, and trust in politicians so low? It will not be easy, but neither is innovating and promoting new products easy. Yet it is done every day. Luckily there are methods and tools available for policy makers to adopt.

There are 3 main components: features, price and promotion. In policy terms features are the what’s, how’s and why’s. What does the policy do, how it will help and so on. The price is often in terms of taxes, and promotion is a concept politicians are well aware of.

To get the mix right, policy makers should really understand public needs. And no, that is different from dictating to the public what that is. There is a wide audience to consider and needs differ. Each segment should be analyzed separately, and policies and promotion thereof tailored to suit needs and tastes. Matching and highlighting policies with the prevailing personality traits should be considered. (Read here). Then policy makers should experiment on small scale with different policy proposals and measure traction. You’d think that this already happens. But observing the shocking surprise by the Brexit and US election, it is not done well enough.     

Dutch television took many years to recover from the advent of reality TV. For a while it was the only thing on offer. Whether politics will recover from the new populist wave, is to be seen. But I believe it depends on moderate parties following business best practices and innovating as response to voter’s concerns, rather than expecting them to toe the abandoned line. When this happens the lure of populists should wane. But until then. Fasten your seatbelt. We’re in for rough ride.