Last week I was in a number of conversations about the role of governments and their relationships to citizens. I heard a common metaphor in these conversations, one which sounded familiar to me from my days working in the federal public service: people were speaking of citizens as customers.
In their desire to provide good services and meet community needs, governments often consider citizens as customers. Big consulting firms, perhaps re-purposing their commercial processes, sell this idea. Conservative commentators and those who import business ideas into the realm of public administration are enamoured by the simplicity of the metaphor. The problem is not only that it’s not true, but it’s also the wrong metaphor.
For starters, citizens are citizens and not customers. The art of governance is not the same as leadership in a business setting. Communities are not strategic entities with goals and mission statements – what is the the strategic objective of your neighbourhood? So much community planning confuses processes and measures aimed at organizational efficiency and applies them to community building. The purposes are different. The purpose of community is belonging, happiness, a sense of security, wellbeing, resiliance. Communities are not efficient, they are not a good use of resources, they do not exhibit directionality. People who live in communities rarely think of themselves living in a strategic entity, but they often think of applying strategic planning to other people’s communities.
Citizens are not customers. They are citizens. And as such they are entirely responsible for the community they create or choose not to create.
But if you do insist on using a metaphor from the commercial world, then try changing the conversation from citizens as customers to citizens as owners. What if citizens were considered the owners of their community and their governments? What if it was their role to create plans and ideas about their future and to invite development, amenities and services to meet those needs? If you are an elected official or a community planner or a developer, how would things change if you approached citizens as the ownership group of the enterprise you are involved in? Citizens are owners in the fiscal sense, the property sense and also owners of their future. This is not about just owning land and paying taxes, this is about the commitment of time and energy you invest in a great community. That makes you an owner and gives you a responsibility for the future. It is up to governments NOT to rob communities of this responsibility, but help enable them to exercise it.
Peter Block’s six conversations and his reframing of community are immensely important in this respect. As are many of the tools you can find at the Orton Foundation’s website which looks at the role of heart and soul in community planning and sees citizens as owners. These are not “soft” tools or touchy-feely processes: rather they are powerful ways to engage with communities and citizens to create the kinds of resilience that sustains communities through good times and bad, and that makes development possible and relevant.