By Dan Waugh, partner, Regulus Partners
A few months ago, I found myself discussing with one of Britain’s leading authorities on gambling, the recent flowering of harm minimisation initiatives. I asked her whether she thought it mattered that this appeared to have come about largely as a result of political sabre-rattling. She answered that it was progress that mattered rather than the path taken to get there.
While I understood her perspective, I wasn't sure at the time that I fully agreed with her – and the trumpeting of several more responsible gambling projects in the meantime has served only to deepen this doubt.
From where I stand, the question of whether the gambling industry is driven to tackle problem gambling through intrinsic or extrinsic motivation is critically important. I hold this view for two reasons: first, that intrinsic motivation leads to better solutions; and second that those solutions will be more sustainable.
If the problem of problem gambling is considered to be primarily a matter of perception then the solutions will be more about style than substance. Responsible gambling programmes founded on considerations of political necessity (whether this be defence against regulatory intervention or the pursuit of liberalisation) are likely to be characterised by highly visible, functional and tangible measures designed to demonstrate that ‘something is being done’.
This approach has a number of drawbacks. Hastily assembled solutions designed (whether by the industry or government) to ameliorate social concerns run the risk of being ineffectual or even damaging in terms of problem gambling (the law of unintended consequences). Even where the merits of a particular measure are clear, there is the question of trade-offs – could the time and money involved have been better spent on other, more effective interventions?
At last year’s Responsible Gambling Trust Harm Minimisation Conference, Professor David Forrest raised the question of whether more subtle, ambient measures (such as encouraging sociability) might be more effective in combating problem gambling than the development of technological interventions like pre-commitment. Yet amidst the debate that has enveloped the industry this year, this question has been ignored.
The key to more effective customer protection in gambling has to be greater understanding of the problem – and this means research. In 2003, Professor Peter Collins wrote: “We need research into all aspects of the causes and consequences of problem gambling, which will include careful monitoring of whatever regulatory, prophylactic, and therapeutic measures are adopted to combat problem gambling.”
More than a decade later, progress has been disappointing. We should acknowledge that the field of problem gambling studies is both relatively young and incredibly complex, involving a range of disciplines (including psychology, sociology, economics and neuro-science) which are just as likely to vie for precedence as work together towards holistic solutions. Efforts are also hamstrung by vested interest, where parties hope not so much to learn from research but rather to gain support for their respective positions. Lastly, research is often undertaken without the active support of the industry itself and so misses the insights that might be gained from close observation of customer behaviour. Once again, motivation is critical. Research entered into collaboratively and in a spirit of honest enquiry has to be the bedrock of effective harm minimisation.
The second reason why intrinsic motivation is so important is that it will drive longer-term and more sustainable solutions. Where the alleviation of political pressure is the aim, the energy behind responsible gambling programmes can be expected to dissipate as scrutiny subsides. This would not be so bad if political pressure declined in line with the incidence of harm. However, this is not the way that politics works.
It is not simply with gambling companies that we should be wary of motivation. Politicians, civil servants and regulators may be just as susceptible to favour expediency over effectiveness – and in such cases it is the vulnerable and damaged who lose out.
The difficulty with all of this is that it’s far more straight-forward to compel adherence to a set of rules than to hope that companies will care enough to address the issue without carrot or stick. Yet the examples of some companies (often owner-managed businesses, who benefit from long-term perspectives and proximity to the customer) who approach problem gambling as a matter of conscience rather than compliance should give us hope.
My solution is two-fold. The first part is to bring the human face of problem gambling into the boardroom by requiring the directors of our largest companies to spend time with front-line organisations like GamCare and the Gordon Moody Association. By shifting the issue from the abstract to the real, we may make responsible operation a way of doing business rather than a brake on commercialism.
The second is to establish a proper forum for the gambling industry to come together with the research community, the regulator and the treatment providers to take a long-term, informed and collective approach to dealing with harm. Gambling has a veritable alphabet soup of organisations (formed with the best of intentions) set up to promote responsibility but the linkages between them are often obscure and the areas of intersection contested. As yet there is nothing that is truly comprehensive.
Ironically, the dictates of conscience are likely to lead to a better future for the industry as public trust is more likely to be engendered by considered attempts to reduce harm than by knee-jerk and transparently cynical responses to political pressure.