Barack Obama spoke about “citizens” eight times yesterday in his “We, the people” inauguration speech.
1. Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens….
2. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher….
3. We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity….
4. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty….
5. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote….
6. They are the words of citizens and they represent our greatest hope….
7. You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.
8. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
The emphasis on “citizens” reminded me of something I received a few days ago from an Arizona law enforcement officer I know, Pete Smith. Here is some of what he wrote:
It has become commonplace for government agencies — from local to federal — to view the people whom they serve as “customers.” It is not anomalous to hear government leaders, with the best of intentions, encourage their subordinates to go above and beyond and deliver “excellent customer service.”
I have attended the mandatory meeting where a well-paid motivational speaker told the room full of government employees that they should strive for “customer astonishment.”
Government leaders are imprudent to promulgate the idea the people they serve are customers.
In their book “The New Public Service: Serving, Not Steering,” Janet and Robert Denhardt discuss the difference between clients, customers and citizens.
Clients (or constituents) tend to be treated as a group. This framework is premised on political theory; it results in the implementation of policies focused on a single, politically defined objective. In other words, the government employee identifies an individual problem that affects a specific group and then crafts an individual solution as defined by the government employee. Solutions tend toward the highly bureaucratic, and there is a sense “the government knows what’s best.”
The “treating people as customers” paradigm operates from an economic theory perspective. It focuses on the individual interests of each person and asks the government employee to follow the adage, “The customer is always right.” While there are clear advantages to this approach as it relates to flexibility and problem-solving, its scope is limited. The government cannot, in all cases, treat people as if they are always right. Any government worker can recognize that this model is logistically untenable. In the case of law enforcement, for instance, a Court of Appeals case explicitly states that police do not have a duty to provide police services to individuals.
The third paradigm emphasizes treating people as citizens. This approach is based on democratic theory and assumes that the person (or citizen) being served has a vested interest in the outcome. In this model the government is serving citizens, in lieu of dictating the answer to them or catering to their perceived needs. Democratic theory assumes that the government will cooperate with the citizen in an effort to gain a positive outcome.
Test for yourself whether the differences in meaning between client, customer and citizens are trivial.
Reread the eight sentences at the start of this post from Obama’s January 21st speech and in place of “citizen,” substitute “client” — or even better — “customer.”
What word best describes who to enlist in “efforts to ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards”?