Time to discriminate as blanket criticism offers little comfort

blog dw

Time to discriminate as blanket criticism offers little comfort

I have come to the view that what gambling needs right now is more discrimination.

This may seem an odd statement to make at a time when gender diversity is a key theme of gambling policy discourse so perhaps I should be more precise. I believe that the current trend towards blanket criticism of the gambling industry – as sexist, misogynist, mean and uncaring – may be doing more harm than good.

In her relatively brief tenure as chief executive of the Gambling Commission, Sarah Harrison has kick-started something of a cultural revolution in the industry. The gambling CEO in Britain today pays significantly more attention to (and spends substantially more time and resource) on trying to achieve the licensing objectives; not every CEO perhaps but certainly those who matter most (those who run companies classified as high impact and medium impact). They may not always succeed and sometimes motivations may be more extrinsic than intrinsic – but it is increasingly the case that they care.

Some of the groundwork for this shift was put in place by Harrison’s predecessor, Jenny Williams. The Government’s belated decision to give the Commission full regulatory oversight for remote gambling was a critical step as well – but Harrison’s role should not be underestimated. In time, we will come to appreciate the value of her work in moving our industry to a more sustainable footing.

Her speech at ICE this week was typical of Harrison’s straight-talking approach. She highlighted a range of problems facing the industry. In the main, her comments were on the money. However, some were highly generalised – part of what appears to be a growing taste for broad-brush censure.

Failure to pursue with vigour the licensing objectives – to ensure fairness, to prevent harm and to keep crime out – ought to be a source of concern; but we should not judge all companies for the failure – or poor taste – of some. We need to discriminate.

Let us start with the thorny issue of industry funding for research, education and treatment for problem gambling. Both the Gambling Commission and GambleAware have in recent months taken the industry to task over the level of funding for the charity – just £3.50 per problem or at-risk gambler, it seems.

This does indeed seem rather low but in conflating industry contributions to GambleAware with RET funding, it skews the picture. I am aware of a number of British licensees that make substantial contributions to RET, not channeled through GambleAware. Their donations exceed the much discussed 0.1% figure by some distance. If we add in broader investment in tackling harm (substantial expenditure on multi-operator self-exclusion schemes for instance) the figure rises again. I agree with Sarah Harrison that the emphasis on a specific percentage formula for funding is unhelpful but this focus has come from GambleAware and the Commission rather than licensees.

The fact that we don’t know how much we spend on RET is an own-goal for the industry. As we have written before, it ought to be possible for the trade associations to provide reasonably accurate estimates of aggregate funding. High impact and medium impact licensees (who constitute the lion’s share of the British market) should be including the information in their Assurance Statements. This may be a better mechanism for keeping the commission abreast than regulatory returns.

The fact that we have such poor information on the level of funding is a concern. It hints at the absence of coordination between the large number of voluntary organisations active in this sphere who receive funds. At a national level we do not have a complete picture of who is funding who to do what and whether it is working.

Last year, the chair of the Gambling Commission, Bill Moyes stated that GambleAware should not have “to write begging letters” to gambling companies in order to secure funding. I thought at the time that this comment betrayed a misunderstanding of how charities operate. I had the privilege of chairing a fantastic little charity for two-and-a-half years and we were brilliant little beggars. We wrote hundreds of those begging letters because that was the only way that we could fund our work (educating teachers and youth workers about gambling-related harm and developing a universities-based mentoring programme). We never demanded money and we never resented the begging for one moment; it was part and parcel of being a charity (as opposed to say a statutory levy board).

We did not denigrate those who did not contribute, we did not seek to pressure companies into donating and we did not encourage organisations to switch funding to us from another charity. To do so would have been against our values; it would also have contravened the rules laid down by the Fundraising Regulator.

In the debate over RET funding, there has been a failure to discriminate between those who do their bit and those who are taking the mickey. In focusing on the perceived insufficiency of aggregate funding for GambleAware, the charity and regulator make no distinction between those who do contribute the recommended (but not statutory) amount of 0.1% of GGR and those who do not. This appears perverse – if a company is as damned for contributing as it is for not contributing, where is the incentive to sustain funding? The threat of a levy is no threat at all if the bulk of the industry supports one anyway.

The LCCP is pretty loose on the subject, effectively requiring that licensees give something to someone (not necessarily GambleAware). This sits at odds with recent regulatory invective that appears to challenge the whole notion of a voluntary system (which is what the law says we should have at present).

Related to this is the question of the National Responsible Gambling Strategy (where GambleAware donations are intended to cover the RET elements). We have been told that progress has been poor; and it has been strongly intimated that this is the fault of the gambling industry. Here again, I have reservations.

Technically, the gambling industry can have only minority culpability for failure – it has sole or joint responsibility for just five of the 12 priorities (albeit some of more substantial ones). GambleAware has responsibility for seven, the RGSB for three and the Gambling Commission for two. If the strategy really is failing (and it is not clear that this is the case – partly because assessment is not subject to the RGSB’s own evaluation protocol) then it seems illogical to lay the blame entirely at the door of the gambling industry.

All of this supposes that there is in fact a single entity called “the gambling industry”. There is not. There is no brass plate for Gambling Inc in Great Britain. The Commission acknowledges this when it (rightly) complains about ”playground” behaviour between the different sectors. The allocation of a leading role for “the industry” in the RGSB strategy suggests responsibility without accountability.

The National Responsible Gambling Strategy is a sensible articulation of what ought to be done; but it does not tell us how the aspirations might be achieved. Some years ago, I had responsibility for strategic planning at a listed British company. It was great fun but it was also fortunate for me that I like cats as I spent a large part of my time attempting to herd them. Strategic planning needs to be either collaborative (where the parties responsible for making stuff happen feel part of the process) or directive (where everyone needs to get in line); it cannot be suggestive.

Critically, a strategy should be a practical plan rather than a set of noble aspirations. As Richard Rumelt observed in his excellent ‘Good Strategy, Bad Strategy’, “The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action”.

It is unclear who is ultimately accountable for the overall National Responsible Gambling Strategy. Indeed, the document even includes one priority (number 2 – shared jointly by the RGSB and GambleAware) to increase the number of organisations responsible for the strategy. In other words, there is split responsibility for making sure that more parties are responsible.

This is not the RGSB’s fault – the board is composed of brilliant people who give their time to a higher cause – but it does betray a flaw in the system.

Taking us back to funding, the Government has announced plans to run a ‘responsible gambling’ advertising campaign. Funding will be in the range of £5m to £7m a year and this will go to GambleAware to dispense. As a consequence, almost 50% of the charity’s funds will be spent on advertising, despite the fact that responsible gambling advertising does not even make it into the national strategy’s 12 priorities (perhaps with good cause – international evidence on the efficacy of such programmes is hardly compelling).

Then there is the question of swimsuits. The use of promo girls has been a feature of ICE ever since I have been attending and – I am told – is a characteristic of some other expos too. A quick search on Google produces examples from the automotive trade, technology companies, brewers and distillers, energy drink producers, bankers and yes – even newspaper publishers.

Based upon interviews captured in the Guardian, it appears that some of the hostesses at ICE experienced unwanted advances (innuendo and touching) from (presumably) male delegates. This is unacceptable. In addition, some attendees (principally but not exclusively women) may be offended by it all and their feelings warrant consideration.

However, while tacky and tawdry, it is not (yet) illegal and it has little to do with our gambling laws. It is also hardly the fault of Britain’s gambling CEOs who were censured for it in the press. ICE is an international trade fair where the vast majority of exhibitors are non-British companies; many are not even licensed by the Gambling Commission.

As Marina Hyde wondered in her Guardian column, given the number of regulatory issues facing gambling, perhaps the use of hostesses at ICE “should be a little further down the Gambling Commission’s list of give-a-tosses.”

The swimsuit issue is just a part of the story. Distaste at the use of promo girls appears to be the start of a narrative that links seamlessly to issues of gender diversity (the scarcity of women in boardroom positions in gambling) and problem gambling. It goes something like this: “If more women were wearing suits instead of bikinis then companies would care more about harm”.

I am not sure that I buy this – for a start if most of the companies that employed girls in swimsuits and bodypaint at ICE are not British then the cultural link to our boardrooms is hard to trace. However, what I think is beside the point. If there is robust evidence to support these claims then something should be done. I am just not aware that any compelling evidence has been produced. Instead, it seems to me, correlation has been painted as causation.

Last year, Kate Lampard, the chair of GambleAware suggested that one of the reasons that problem gambling was not being addressed properly was the male dominance of gambling company boardrooms. She went on to relate how, shortly after her appointment she had been subject to a hostile reception from male members of gambling’s senior management.

This should not be trivialized – Ms Lampard deserves both our sympathy and our admiration; those who attacked her ought to be ashamed….but only those who attacked her. To paint male gambling executives en masse as misogynist dinosaurs simply because a number of them may be is to employ gender stereotypes for the purpose of denigration – and there is nothing admirable about that.
As a man, I am ready to admit that many women have me beat for sensitivity and brains; but the idea that greater gender diversity in boardrooms will lead to a more caring industry is too simplistic. I have worked with some wonderful, brilliant women in my career but I have also come across some fairly cynical individuals – and have formed the view that empathy and decency are not gender-specific in this game.

We need to understand – using credible research – why it is that more women are not represented in gambling’s C-suite. How much is choice and how much bias? If we don’t understand the nature of the problem, we risk arriving at poor solutions, making wrongful accusations and damaging trust.

I believe the Gambling Commission when it claims that trust in gambling companies is in decline. It is difficult to argue against the fact that some operators have managed risk in this area with reckless abandon. Many of the leading companies are at least now trying to address this.

What concerns me is that the regulatory Establishment (DCMS, the Gambling Commission and GambleAware) may be losing the trust of gambling companies. The generalized attacks on the industry for individual failings; the dislocation between the LCCP and informal threats; the misleading statements, unsubstantiated claims and sensation-seeking – all risk poisoning the relationship. Amongst the consequences of this may be (to echo Sarah Harrison) “a shameful waste of energy”.

Meanwhile, the customer has been largely forgotten. I enjoyed the pleasure of interviewing the great economist, Sir Alan Budd at the ICE Legislators Lunch last week. We discussed the centrality of the customer in his seminal report from 2001 and in particular the ‘Central Dilemma’ – how to frame gambling legislation in order to promote the greatest enjoyment while also providing proportionate protections against harm.

This logic appears to have largely gone missing from policy discourse (although there are subtle notes of consumer enjoyment in the Gambling Commission’s own strategic). The most that we can expect these days is a grudging acceptance that some people may enjoy gambling – but no interest in how much, what benefits (in terms of well-being this might generate), what modes might offer the greatest pleasure or how we might reframe legislation using such insights. As I wrote at the end of last year, “an exclusive focus on the costs of gambling fails by definition to “put the customer at the heart” of policy-making”.

We need to find a way back to a properly balanced discussion about the state of gambling in Great Britain. Where we have problems, we need to do a far better job of understanding their causes and reporting on them accurately; where there are unfair or irresponsible practices, we must eradicate them; where there are ‘bad apples’, they must be removed; and where companies are doing a good job in bringing enjoyment to their customers and developing appropriate safeguards, we need to commend them. Above all, we must learn once more to discriminate.