Sunday 24 January 2021 9:00 am

The National Lottery needs new impetus to make it a safe bet

Brent Hoberman CBE is a tech entrepreneur who sits on the business advisory board of SAZKA, one of the firms bidding to secure the next Lottery contract.

What would Britain look like without the National Lottery?

It’s not a question most Britons contemplate but it’s a question a number of companies are now working through as the Fourth National Lottery Licence Competition swings into gear.

The Gambling Commission will be selecting the next National Lottery operator this summer and the winning bid will need to cover a lot of ground including, most importantly, how to make the lottery stand out in a crowded digital environment.

Of course, none of the interested bidders want the lottery to disappear. Quite the contrary. But each company now developing their plan knows they are facing an uphill battle to revitalise an institution that is trying to stay relevant to many people’s lives.

Huge ad campaigns cannot hide the fact that millions of people – 8.5 million, in fact – have stopped playing the lottery over the past decade. Hence the question at the opening of this column.

Now let’s reframe the question: Why is it important for the next operator of the National Lottery to improve on the status quo?

Well, we’ll be a lot poorer as a nation if we don’t, for a start. And I’m not referring to the billions in prize money that has been handed out by the National Lottery.

I’m referring to the over £41 billion that has been contributed to 565,000+ ‘good causes’ across the country since 1994, whether that be in the form of needed community infrastructure like parks and recreation centres, or via cash support to our brilliant artists and athletes. Our national landscape would look very different without those good deeds.

It is hard to imagine the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda coming off without a strong helping hand from the National Lottery, especially in the post-Covid-19 world. That’s why the Gambling Commission has such an important decision to make; they need to select an operator that can reverse the decline in lottery players, increase lottery sales and generate more money for good causes.

Like any institution, the National Lottery will have to change in order to adapt to the 21st century; the broader environment has certainly changed a lot since its creation by the government of Sir John Major in 1994.

The switch to digital solutions and the increased competition from new gaming platforms have made the lottery look old-fashioned. Having spent a career leveraging new technologies to drive progress and solve problems, I am confident that there is potential for the National Lottery to embrace technological change and improve the ways we play.

The next steward of the National Lottery must also encourage players to play responsibly, and so player protection must be at the forefront of any bid.

The Gambling Act is now up for review, and while the National Lottery is governed by separate legislation, we can be certain that the government will rightly implement strong protections to ensure everyone who plays does so safely. A turn to a digital approach will also serve to protect players at risk of gambling addiction, with stronger age verification processes and the ability of data analytics to identify and intervene into unhealthy playing habits.

So, where does this leave the future of the National Lottery?

Whatever the final proposals might be, one thing is clear: boosting sales will mean bringing fresh perspectives to our lottery, whether by learning from success stories from abroad or in coming up with entirely new approaches to playing.  We now consume music, film and news in new ways via new channels, why shouldn’t it be the same for the lottery?

Ultimately, the objectives for bidders are simple: relaunch the lottery, win back lost customers, and attract a new generation of players in a way that protects the vulnerable. But tinkering on the margins won’t do.

It is time for bold thinking to be married with sound business plans and proven track records of success so the National Lottery can move confidently and seamlessly into a new era. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.