Why the Customer Frame Fails

citizen stamp owners of governmentWe love this piece that Paul Vandeventer of Los Angeles-based Community Partners wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. He points out the damage done to our relationship with our government when we refer to those who use public services as “customers.” As customers, when we’re not satisfied with the services we receive, we don’t want to pay for them. So we demand that our government spend less money on services, making them less effective. That’s when private companies move in to fill the gaps—for-profit companies like private schools for those who have money, non-profits like free health clinics for those who don’t. But in the process, we abandon our role as citizens and the owners of government. Vandeventer explains:

We’ve gone a long way in the last several decades down the dead-end road of denying that we own the government institutions that we do, in fact, own. Increasingly during that time, we’ve grown more comfortable ceding bits of our loyalty—and our incomes—to businesses adept at making it very attractive for us to be their customers. And when we become unsatisfied, we can take our business elsewhere.

But despite its many levels and complexities—federal, state, local—we have only one government and, for better or worse, it’s government of us, by us and for us. Lest we completely lose the capacity for managing our citizen stake in the public institutions that make up government, perhaps we ought to recognize the value and potential of what it is that we own together. Maybe then we’ll start to see that it’s really up to us to make sure those institutions live up to our expectations of quality and equality. We as civil society and nonprofit sector leaders must pay attention, and track and monitor actions of elected officials. That means keeping a watchful and discerning eye on the larger political architecture, as well as the weedy but necessary deals that elected officials engage in every day to satisfy the interests of competing constituencies.

Paul’s piece is a reminder to all of us who support the role of government that we must avoid the “customer” frame. It puts people in the mindset of thinking about what they get from government, rather than how they can take part in government to uplift the common good and create the society they want.

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