Public services marketing: it’s like poker, and WiFi, and national parks

Texas Hold 'em Hole Cards

Imagine Las Vegas has invented a new card game called Commons Poker. Here’s how you play.

You and three strangers each ante $250, for a pot of $1,000. Each of you is dealt four cards, leaving a majority of the deck undealt. Each of you chooses to simultaneously play one card from your hand. If you all play your lowest card, you each win ten times your ante, or $2,500.

If any of you choose to play the highest card in your hand, then high card wins the round and collects two times his or her ante, $500. Everyone else loses, and the house keeps the other $500 from the original ante.

How would you play? What if you held the ace of clubs in your hand? There are three aces higher than yours, but they could well be in the undealt portion of the deck. Do you play a card that looks like a possible winner to double your money, or do you trust the other strangers at the table to all play their lowest card and have everyone collect ten times their money?

In other guises, we play this game every day in the public sphere. The decision to have national parks is a version of this game. We all decide to play our lowest card, not exploiting land for personal profit, so that all may profit from access to the park.

Through this lens, the telecom spectrum looks like a national park looks like Commons Poker. We agree to set aside a portion of a very valuable resource so that all may benefit through public access and first responder communications. We have WiFi because we agreed as a nation to not sell that portion of the spectrum to a carrier such as AT&T and pocket the money.

Health care is another way we play Commons Poker. Some countries, like the U.S., play for personal gain of private care providers and maximized personal care for individuals, while other countries, like Canada, play for universal access at the expense of private profits.

With this post, I’m not trying to wade into the politics of land use, telecommunications, or health care. My point is that in the public sphere the design of the game, and how we choose to play it, matters. The stakes are high.

Not coincidentally, design and motivation are two realms where marketing can have a lot of influence. Through marketing in the public sphere, we can design better games and encourage styles of play that increase the benefit to all.

Commons Poker is a game that we invented, consciously or unconsciously. Because it is a game, and our game, we can tweak the rules and styles of play to make it more fun for everyone.

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