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Clancy’s right – citizens and customers are quite different

Clancy’s right – citizens and customers are quite different

🕔25.Jan 2016

So, in announcing his linguo-cultural revolution of having Birmingham City Council refer to us as ‘citizens’ rather than ‘customers’, the new city leader John Clancy reportedly omitted to explain why he didn’t like the word ‘customer,’ writes Chris Game

I wasn’t at the scrutiny committee in question – though I quite wish I had been, as Paul Dale’s report made it sound more than averagely interesting – so I can only guess at his reasons.

The leader’s a busy man, facing a lengthy agenda – undoubtedly; but perhaps he just didn’t want any councillors launching into their Basil Fawlty impressions and accusing him of appropriating Sybil’s Mastermind special subject of the bleedin’ obvious.

It IS pretty obvious, but the very fact that ‘customers’ is what we’re conventionally called and, just as importantly, how we’re encouraged to see ourselves, indicates that what I’d guess are the reasons for Cllr Clancy’s initiative are worth rehearsing.

First, though, it’s significant that the terminology council officers are being asked to change FROM is ‘customers’, rather than ‘consumers’.

For far too long, all councils will nowadays concede, while generally they were professionally managed, and competently delivered at least tolerable standards of service, they acted as what essentially they were: unchallenged local monopolies providing services TO – rather than FOR, let alone WITH – a geographically captive public.

We were treated as passive, sometimes ungrateful, but largely voiceless and choiceless CONSUMERS. What service measurement there was focused on quantity rather than quality, with relatively little consideration given to issues of flexibility, variety and consumer preference.

But gradually – because almost nothing (except perhaps changes of council leaders) happens THAT quickly in local government – the pendulum began to swing, which was good. However, in Cllr Clancy’s view – and mine, for what it’s worth – it swung too far, which was bad.

Instead of recognising us for what we were – consumers entitled to more voice and choice and sometimes more considerate treatment – we all, councils and us, had to collude in the ridiculous pretence that we were suddenly CUSTOMERS.

It was the CUSTOMER service revolution, with CUSTOMER First programmes and CUSTOMER care charters, spelling out, sometimes in CUSTOMER contracts, what we CUSTOMERS could expect – just as if we’d shopped around and chosen to walk the streets, use the libraries, and have our bins collected by the refuse collectors, of OUR local council, in preference to all the others we might have chosen.

It was driven, of course, by national politicians – of both main parties – committed to the Animal Farm-like dogma of ‘Private sector – Good; Public sector – Bad’, or at least less good.

For those working in local government, who see the reverse being demonstrated in practice on virtually a daily basis (a recent example being G4S’ red doors on the homes of their Middlesbrough asylum seeking customers), this is frustrating and insulting.

For the rest of us, almost as irritating is the way the single Customer label blurs the increasing variety of very different relationships most of us have with the range of local services we use.

Some services are ‘universal’ (street cleaning, refuse collection), some demand-led (information, advice), some defined by eligibility or assessed need (council housing, day nursery places, most social services), some imposed through legislation (education, trading standards, mental health services).

A local resident may be a CONSUMER of all of these, but in relatively few cases are they a CUSTOMER, in the traditional, choice-exercising sense of the word.

So CUSTOMER is seriously, arguably cynically, misleading, but I would guess that Cllr Clancy’s objections are even more to its individualism and insularity. It’s about me, exercising my choice to buy something – increasingly nowadays on my own device in the complete privacy of my own little space – and that’s more or less it.

A customer’s ‘participation’ is limited essentially to one self-centred activity – buying stuff. Even if the stuff’s not for one’s personal use, a customer transaction is entirely – on both sides – about maximising one’s own interests.

A CITIZEN is something altogether different. Literally, of course, the inhabitant of a city, and thereby necessarily part of a collectivity, a community of fellow citizens.

As such, citizens think and participate in the plural, not the singular – in concert with and with a consciousness of their fellow citizens. And not just consciousness of, but conscience about, those citizens and their city. Because it is THEIR/OUR city.

Most citizens, for eminently good reasons, don’t want to devote major fractions of their lives to being part of the actual government of their city. But that doesn’t mean they’re careless about it or want nothing to do with its governance.

They sense they have their own potential contributions to make, through other resources, their relationships, and simply through the way in which they behave towards and interact with their fellow citizens.

Customer-talk, among its other faults, fosters a completely contrasting them-and-us perception of government and politicians. Them down at Westminster or in their Council House committees and us mere voters (or alienated abstainers) aren’t part of any kind of shared democratic endeavour, but as two-sided as a local football derby or any customer transaction.

As a result, elections are fought, policies compromised, party manifestos drafted, speeches made, and votes cast as if electors’ sole concern was the customer’s WIIFM – What’s In It For Me?

It’s never struck me as a particularly good abbreviation, so it shouldn’t be hard for to come up with a better alternative for the new Clancy citizen army. WBFB (What’s Best For Birmingham) is an East Coast US radio station, or the Western Black Flea Beetle. The last two letters make WBFU (What’s Best For Us) a bit iffy. So I guess it’s over to you, Cllr Clancy.

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