Citizens, not Customers?

I kicked off a new programme with the senior leadership team at Christchurch City Council last week. One of the things I noticed about the way GMs communicated was the deliberate use of the word “citizens” as opposed to customers.

I like this – it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in writing my book, which talks a bit about the lasting impact of public sector reforms during the late 1980s. Referring to citizens as ‘customers’ is just one of the ways commercial thinking and language is used in public agencies.

In many ways, treating and thinking about citizens as customers is a strong positive. The idea is that we aim for more satisfying transactions and interactions with government. There is a popular school of thought that our expectations of our service providers are on the rise, thanks to the fast, slick and intuitive interactions offered by large public companies. According to some commentators, government should aim to match those expectations, offering a similar quality and convenience of service to industries like banking and shopping.

I get that – and I want that! Anyone who’s been stuck in a bureaucratic process wants that.

I can’t help but shake the idea though, that thinking about citizens as customers is a bit of a demotion. One thing I particularly like about the connotation of the word citizen is the idea of a person who participates in a society or system of government – while a customer feels more passive, the agent or subject of a transaction.

“As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”- Adlai E Stevenson

Even where simple transactions are concerned, the public sector does not have “customers” in the truest sense. If public services were commercially viable, they would face market competition, and citizens would have a choice about whether to purchase them! However in the public sector “hostage model” – you’ve often got two options: take it, or take it.

Why does this matter?

There’s lots of noble reasons it matters – shaping our democracy, promoting civic engagement…

But more tangibly and from my perspective, this distinction matters because when we’re deciding how to spend limited public resources, we may need to choose between being customer-centric or citizen-centric.

Businesses are motivated by profit and would always focus on the needs of customers. But in public organisations focused on the big picture, the interests of the broader citizenry may trump the desires of an individual or customer. The two are not mutually exclusive of course, but there are often occasions where they do conflict. Recent ones I’ve observed include:

-        A choice between delivering more effective services by focusing on internal process improvements, or delivering more satisfactory services by improving a customer transaction interface

-        Deciding whether to design services that attract more fee-paying customers or best serve unmet community needs, in facilities such as libraries, swimming pools and community centres.

My gut feeling on this one is that: when in doubt, the needs of the citizenry need to come first. In my view, the customer should be thought of as a subset of the more worldly ‘citizen’. Citizens might be customers in a transactional capacity – ordering a passport, or paying for dog registration – but that subset should not define the broader relationship we have with our public agencies or become more important than the big-picture collective interest.

What do you think?

Is this a choice you’ve been faced with in your organisation?

Do you talk about citizens, or customers?

Does it matter?

Keen to hear your thoughts on this one!