Call me a citizen, not a customer

February 25, 2014

By Peter Clark

In Mayor Fred Butler’s Feb. 18 State of the City address, he said the first initiative of the coming year lies in providing “outstanding customer service.” It was the most recent example of hearing city officials in Issaquah and elsewhere refer to citizens as customers and I keep trying to unravel why it bothers me.

I should say up front that I have a silly little degree in political science, and obsessing over the details of government language comes with the territory. Still, my knee-jerk reaction would say, “You are a government, not Verizon or Domino’s pizza.”

Peter Clark Press reporter

Peter Clark
Press reporter

Clearly, governments who refer to citizens as customers do so in order to clarify the relationship between the public and the establishment. By saying they hold themselves accountable for the taxes they receive and pledge to provide good services in exchange, it frames the relationship in an economically driven way. Additionally, it makes the give and take seem more friendly and personal.

However, I believe it does a disservice to citizens and treats the relationship in a slightly flippant manner. The government carries many more responsibilities than that economic relationship. It shapes policy, it enforces laws and it stands as an arbiter for settling legal disputes. I do not want police officers to protect me because I am their “customer,” I do not want a council to pass laws for “customers” and I do not want judges to sentence “customers” to jail.

When the framers wrote the Constitution, they did so under the supposition that government is an entity of, by and for the people, to defend inalienable rights against tyranny. Local and national government espouse the constant protection of something esoteric and ideal as we all try to figure out what freedom, justice and equality all mean and how to best include them in our society.

Citizenship remains something immigrants wait years to earn, whereas anyone who enters a Top Pot donut shop immediately becomes a customer.

Here’s a question: What if Issaquah provides bad customer service?

Sure, we vote out those responsible and hope for better, but we can’t opt out. There is no other option. It’s not like poor service at a restaurant or bank. Competition does not exist if the police start giving “bad customer service.” We can’t say, “Well, I am just never coming to THIS municipality in which I live again!”

I am not arguing for that competition. I am arguing against boiling down that relationship into one of simple economic quid pro quo.

I believe government should reflect the fact that it is comprised of the public and recognize citizens as owners of the establishment, and not only as recipients of services.


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2 Responses to “Call me a citizen, not a customer”

  1. Barbara Shelton on February 26th, 2014 6:51 am

    Yes!!! Words matter, as do the actions that follow.

  2. Jim on February 27th, 2014 12:01 pm

    Great piece!

    I suggest that “customer” be replaced with “employer”

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