Monday, 11 April 2011

Does Government really want to listen?

As we discussed in last week's article, the Coalition Government have indeed announced a "pause" in the progress of their NHS reforms through parliament. The next two months will see a re-engagement with NHS staff, GP's and the Public, where the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, will again state his case for reform and again, listen to the objections and concerns.

Once the Bill starts to move again, we'll see if this actually has any affect on it's contents. Doctors were angered when the Bill was introduced, as they felt that they hadn't been listened to. The 'consultations' the Government held with them, as well as with other health professionals, had little bearing on the details of their plan. People may react badly if they feel the same has happened again.

But if Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is to be believed, the Government are open to amending the Bill, though not the "basic building blocks". That would be the GP Consortia, abolishing PCTs and health services being put out to tender, so those are essentially non-negotiable. If these are exactly the points that people take issue with, will the Government want to listen?

Anyway, I was going to take the opportunity with this weeks article to also take a break from the reforms... but it can be difficult!

The intention of this blog is as we say in our 'about' to the top right of this page, but the importance and potential repercussions of the proposed changes to the NHS has meant that it's somewhat dominated our output of late. That's not to mention the nationwide lull in Social Marketing activities, which the uncertainty about the future has inevitably brought, and has resulted in a reduction in our source material.

Our readers could be of help in this, so if you know of or run a Social Marketing campaign that we could feature, please leave a comment or email me at ''. Thank you.

So, today's article was meant to be a follow up on one we published back in February, just before we relaunched as 'Rewarding Marketing'. In that, I discussed my intention to volunteer for the Big Society, offering my Social Media marketing skills to Ferens, the Council run art gallery in the centre of Hull, our home town.

The gallery is a great institution in our city. It's in the UK's top ten and welcomes thousands of visitors each year, but has little online presence. I happen to run an extremely well used facebook page for art in Hull, so know that there's a large audience who'd no doubt relish the opportunity to be more connected with the city's largest and most prominent gallery. There's also the wider public and the nationwide audience that, say a facebook page, could meaningfully engage with.

If done well, this would result in more interest in Ferens and more people through the doors. Other objectives, such as encouraging investment, donations and volunteers, or recruiting for the associated charity, Friends of Ferens, could also be targeted.

Unfortunately, despite all this, Hull City Council declined my offer. They can't afford to spare the time for their staff to run a page, but feel uncomfortable with a volunteer from outside the Council taking the role, even if they're a proven marketing professional, with a track record of delivering Public Sector projects.

This seemed a little odd, as like all other councils, they almost certainly outsource certain marketing projects, so should be comfortable with that. In cash strapped times, shouldn't they jump at the chance of free help?

It got me to thinking, that with art so low down the agenda, was it more a matter of being potentially more trouble than it's worth?

Following these lines of thought and broadening the scope, it struck me that both local and national government haven't exactly embraced Social Media. Considering it provides a platform by which government could connect and communicate en masse with it's Public, in a more effective and far reaching way than any other medium provides, even going so far as to say it could enhance democracy, shouldn't there be more interest?

I wonder if it's a matter of fear and focusing on the negatives.

I ran a series of workshops around the Country last year, for Marketing Directors in Private Schools. Though the aim was for us to demonstrate the enormous benefits that Social Media can bring, a large portion of our time was spent trying to allay fears. More than one participant used the word "terror" in regards to the implications of a platform where a single voice, say from a pupil, could spread far and wide, damaging the precious reputations of their schools. How to deal with such instances became a primary focus of the workshops, with all the good stuff taking a back seat.

Those involved though, did realize that the 'head in the sand' approach was possibly even more dangerous. Whether they liked it or not, their institutions already had a presence in Social Media, with a multitude of conversations taking place, as well as numerous unofficial profiles. If the schools themselves wanted a say in how they were presented on Social Media, they had to bite the bullet, overcome their fears, and get involved.

It is understandable that a school would be cautious, considering the sensitive nature of dealing with children coupled with the fact that each would have hundreds of children, as well as parents, staff and other stakeholders, regularly using Social Media. Trying to control or at least influence all those voices could seem a daunting task.

Those numbers would be far higher for local Councils and much higher still for central government, and perhaps that's the crux of their worries. When you could expect a reasonable, if not large proportion of comments to be negative or complaints, would you want them displayed online for everybody to see? It wouldn't portray you in the most positive light, but it would be honest, open and transparent, which is what government increasingly purports to be.

But like the schools, there's already endless pages and profiles in Social Media voicing those opinions. We always say to clients not to delete negative comments, but instead, deal with them in a genuine and meaningful way. This turns those negatives into positives, demonstrating a willingness to not only listen, but take action on what's said.

It may be a large undertaking for an organisation with the number of stakeholders that local and national government have, but it would represent a willingness to truly engage with the public and give them more of a say in the governance of their own lives. Surely, that's an opportunity that should be seized upon, rather than avoided.

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