Public Sector Marketing Is Not An Oxymoron

By Robert Chaffers, M.C.Inst.M.,
Treasury Board of Canada

For many private sector marketing professionals, "public sector marketing" may sound like an oxymoron. It may also have the same effect on many who work in public sector organizations.

Over two decades of influence

As early as the 1970s, Philip Kotler and other academics noted the applicability of the 'marketing concept' to the public sector. However, over the past decade of public sector reform in many countries, the twin roles of government ­ public policy development and service delivery ­ though intimately linked, have become clearer and more distinct. Public sector managers have learned much about what constitutes good service delivery. At the same time, other public and government-funded institutions in health-care, education and other essential services have had to become more "client focussed", especially when those same clients were expected to pay directly, at least some of the costs of the services they received. Similarly, non governmental and charitable organizations have become less paternalistic and more sensitive to the perspective of their clients and beneficiaries, encouraged by limited resources and changing needs.

The public/non profit sector

The magnitude of the role that the "public/non-profit sector" plays in our North American society is not easily noticed in the shadow of the stock markets. Today, Canadian federal government organizations alone provide well over $10 billion annually of services in return for direct payment ­ that's a lot of "marketing" transactions. The "Canadian public sector", defined by Statistics Canada as all government organizations, (i.e. not including non government organizations (NGOs), contribute approximately 20 percent to GDP and total employment.

Kotler and Andreason, in their fifth (1996) edition of Strategic Marketing for Non Profit Organizations, noted on page 13 that the "private non profits" (i.e. NGOs), have been steadily increasing their contribution to the US GDP over the past decades to over seven percent by 1990. When these organizations are combined with government wages and salaries, this broader US definition of the public, or non profit sector, represents about a third of GDP.

Marketing as a management discipline broadens and deepens

So while the public perception of 'marketing' remains limited to only one of its traditional ŒP's ­ 'Promotion', which is often shaped by the most extreme self-serving examples, the marketing function itself, through the work of its professional practitioners (and its academics), continues to develop as a core management discipline. In some areas it is deepening its organizational impact, while at the same time broadening its fields of application, (Kotler's extension of the generic concept of marketing to all organizations that have customers and to all publics).

It is not surprising then, that the ongoing maturation of the 'marketing concept' which can bring the perspectives and interests of those that the organization exists to serve directly into the executive boardroom and the consciousness of the product/program and policy makers of any organization, is attracting the attention of non profit organizations, including government.

Chapter One of Strategic Marketing for Non Profit Organizations, clearly sketches the progressive stages of the adoption of marketing principles by the public sector over the past two decades.

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