News & Opinion

Customer or citizen?

In The Maven on December 28, 2010 at 12:19 PM

image by ItzaFineDay

By The Maven | We hear a lot about customer service from our newly in favour conservative politicians lately. Rob Ford likes to talk about the provision of services by the City to its citizens as customer service. And he wants good customer service. Who wouldn’t?

I wrote in a previous post about the fallacy of trying to run government like a business. The problem is that many businesses are poorly run… more poorly run than government.  For instance, it has been shown that private health insurance in the United States is far more expensive to provide than public insurance here in Canada.

But that is not my point today. Today I want to talk about citizenship and consumership. You see, these business oriented politicians just don’t get it.

Consumers’ relationship with business is very different from a citizen’s relationship with government.  As consumers, we are offered pre-packaged items to purchase or not.  If we don’t like it, we have the option of not purchasing it or purchasing a competitive item… except for the unusual example of a licensed monopoly.

Of course, that isn’t the case with government services where we don’t usually have competing provision of services (public vs private schools might be an example of an exception).

But really there is a further and more important distinction. In a very important sense, we own government. Not on a one-to-one basis. We cannot go in to a government office and ask for exceptional consideration or new rules to our liking. But we can, through the democratic process – whether at election time, by lobbying our councillor individually or by community activism — direct the provision of services.

It is our right to help establish goals for our city/community/body politic by making our desires and needs known to politicians and others in our community.  We can and should be directing the provision of services on the planning and macro implementation level.

By defining ourselves as consumers we become passive ingestors of services and not acting directors. And this is exactly what conservative activists and politicians want.

They wish to see a diminution in government services because they are ideologically opposed to the intrusion of government into their daily lives. Why? Because they have the resources to purchase whatever services they need and they do not want to be paying the taxes necessary to subsidize the service provision to the rest of us. As well, of course, they wish to decrease the possibility of any threat to their own power.

By re-badging the political discussion from ‘what do we want our government to do for us’ to ‘how best can we purchase/consume what the government is selling to us’ conservative politicians are reducing our collective autonomy to control our environment. Only through government does the average citizen have any modicum of control over our society.

And it is just this possibility (because right now citizens’ control or input to society is only potential and not terribly well realized) that some politicians wish to deny the citizenry.

Do not accept being referred to as consumers of government services. We are not consumers, we are citizens. And we have the right and the possibility to exercise control over the bureaucracy if we choose to.  We do not have to accept mere attempts to make the bureaucracy more efficient. Rather we can alter its terms.

Having said this, I understand the anger of the average citizen over our government services. No one wants to pay more taxes than we have to. And there is waste in the bureaucracy. Much of the bureaucracy has been allowed to deteriorate in their provision of services exactly because of the rhetoric that we need to run things more like a business. Right now our government is being run like Bell Canada or Rogers Cable.

We don’t have to accept this. We can demand that government be run on behalf of us, the citizenry. We can demand that a civilized society desires a sensitive and citizen-centric bureaucratic focus. To do less is to allow the bureaucracy to whither to the point that we do indeed become simple consumers.

No one likes to pay taxes. But collective provision of community services is much cheaper –and therefore efficient—that private provision of services. This is true for health care, public transportation, schools…

Taxes suck.  But they are much cheaper than going out and buying stuff on your own.


Visit ItzaFineDay’s photostream on Flickr.


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