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previous: nic The "Customer Service" focus (OH SO LONG) -- 7/25/2003 10:36 PM View Thread

That's not long, THIS is long

7/27/2003 3:17 AM
Mark Hammer
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That's not long, THIS is long
Like you, I am wary of the implications of government referring to citizens as "customers" or "clients". It is probably pretty important to understand where it comes from, though, since understanding the roots helps point to a more suitable replacement.  
 
Two trends in the public perceptin of government have emerged over the past 20-30 years. One is that government just goes about its own agenda like some bureaucratic juggernaut (think Terry Gilliam's "Brazil") and citizens just have to knuckle under. A second is that government has grown too callous about its use of the public purse. Both claims are, if not entirely true, in the true-ish direction. I sau "true-ish" because the ways in which the public colludes/conspires to produce both of these outcomes are numerous, so it would be unfair to shift all the blame to one side of the equation.  
 
The net result is that there is greater emphasis within most western democracies to pursue a more private sector mindset in two manners:  
a) To treat the citizen as if they were needed and important. The citizen is one's "client" because analogous to a business, you *need* the citizen and fellow public servant and have an obligation to them, rather than vice versa...minus the need. I think there are serious problems with the "client" metaphor, but embedded in all the corporate spam I receive daily, is the general message that thinking about citizens a bit more like clients who provide the raison d'etre of what you do is good and helps government to be appropriately responsive to the people it serves. It's good to not forget that citizens are more important than policies and red tape.  
b) To behave as if it is your profits/money that are being wasted. In my government the buzzphrase is "modern comptrollership" on the part of managers and supervisors. Where in the past, accounting and accountability was something that someone in the finance office took care of, the modern manager is expected to manage not only their people andprojects but their budget in a way that provides value for citizens. I won't pretend they all live up to that standard, but that's the goal.  
 
The "client" metaphor is also in response to the search for a generic term to refer to anyone who needs what you do. That client could be a citizen, a union officer, a person in another part of your ministry/agency/department, or someone in another department. One's obligation to them all should be consistent, and the term "client" is one strategy for urging that consistency of obligation and service. I might point out that most health professinals these days also refer to "clients" and not "patients", at least during training.  
 
From a more cynical perspective, the emergence of private sector terminology and a private sector mentality is also the outgrowth of a decade and a half of conservative push for smaller government and the tendency for many governments to try and privatize, and in so doing reduce government expense and government control. This experiment has met with assorted degrees of success and failure but to the best of my knowledge, mainly failure, largely because it tends to be inspired by the cynicism, resentment, and complaint that breed rash decisions. A number of countries and provinces/states that have tried to privatize things in the past few years have either already decided to turn back to the old ways, or have recently discovered that privatizing public sector functions has ended up providing second rate service, and are currently reevaluating their strategy. Most privatization moves I have seen were not at all well thought out.  
 
Doesn't mean that governments don't ever get a little too big or imbalanced in their allocation of effort and resources, or that they couldn't be trimmed back here and there, but most attempts at privatization that I've seen tended to be in service of some bullshit promise to cut taxes so that somebody could win an election and respond to whiners. That's not exactly the same as having a starting point of trying to hot rod government to make it work even better by reducing weight here and there the way you would on a dragster or formula 1 car. Some aspects of privatization CAN work, but we've traditionally approached it the wrong way and the results show. I look forward to the time when government redesign is not inextricably harnessed to tax cuts and promises to lobby groups, but done exactly the way you'd sit down to bias an amp or dress your frets.  
 
The problem with the "client" metaphor is that it encourages us to think of the pubic sector as somehow needing to turn a profit regardless of method and as having "productivity", which can be enhanced by making us more efficient. Clients are also people you try to persuade and sometimes hoodwink, and not always people you try to work with as equals. I like to think that what I do (government research analyst) is nonpartisan work done in the pubic interest without favouritism towards my organization OR the public. I represent government to citizens but I also represent citizens to government, management to unions, unions to management and both management and unions to the public. Everyone is at the same table, bears some responsibility, and needs each other. I can't do that if anyone is my "client".  
 
Ironically, the thing that all private sector people wish to do is grow their organizations. The successful company is the one that expands. Of course, the desire to emulate the efficiency of business uns completely anathema to the initial motivation, which is to make government leaner.  
 
With the exception of branches of government that process orders or carry out transactions that take up citizen time, patience and resources, government is not "productive" in the way that a manufacturing plant is. Rather, it is *responsive* in the sense that it listens, thinks ahead, and does what needs to be done, whether that something is policy/law change, military action, public messaging, enforcement, or whatever.  
 
We recently had an incident here involving a single cow with BSE, and the Food Inspection Agency hopped in the saddle and took care of it promptly. That's not "productive" in any sense of the word, but it IS responsive.  
 
The "client" emphasis is also bad for government in the sense that it encourages a more commercial style of accounting/audit, whereby someone has to generate stuff, and more stuff is somehow better. Adopt a private sector mentality, serving your "clients" and the race begins to simply generate more stuff that can be counted regardless of what it is. Does the police officer who hands out more tickets or cuffs more people while enunciating their rights in the process make the world safer for citizens, or have they simply carried out some action without regard to import/impact? Is a border guard that gets you through quickly without being vigilant enough for contraband, weapons, terrorists or disgruntled ex-husbands running off with kids they lost custody of, being productive? Do you want them to be responsive or provide "client service"? My job is to have bright ideas about human resource management and provide forward thinking pieces to senior management. If I have 3 bright ideas in a year, or crank out a paper faster, as opposed to turning out 2 papers in a year slowly and thoughtfully, which year is the more "productive"? And what the hell does "productivity" look like in an agency/department/ministry head? Does it mean more papers signed? Fewer strikes to count? More banal speaking engagements? On the other hand, I *know* what responsiveness looks like in that person, the same way someone waiting in an unemployment line knows what responsiveness looks like when they see their officer.  
 
Nope. You're not my client. You're my fellow citizen, and thank goodness for that.

 
Replies:
anonymous but perhaps not long enough -- 7/27/2003 5:01 PM