Florida County Puts 'Citizens First!': Focus Is Civic Engagement, Not Customer Satisfaction
Denhardt, Robert B., Nation's Cities Weekly
Over the past 30 to 40 years, the public's trust in government has declined dramatically. Where only a few decades ago three out of four people said that they "trusted the government in Washington to do what is right" most or all of the time, today that percentage is less than one out of four. People see their elected officials, especially those at the federal level, as being dishonest, callous, and unwilling to listen. They see the government as "out of control."
At the same time, the level of citizen interest and involvement in public affairs is being questioned. In a historic context, citizenship meant working for the common good. Yet too often today we hear people respond to public issues by saying "What's in it for me" or "Not in my backyard." Citizens are not well-educated about the operations of government nor are they well tuned in to public affairs.
An interesting and important effort to address these basic concerns has been occurring over the past year and a half in Florida. On April 4, 1995, Linda W. Chapin, the first elected County Chairman of Orange County, Florida (the county surrounding Orlando), addressed a large gathering of community leaders and volunteers. In her remarks, Chapin pointed out that success in any policy area--whether the environment, transportation, criminal justice, or schools--ultimately depends on the pride and commitment of citizens. Arguing that a rekindling of the idea of civic engagement lies at the base of all efforts to improve community life, Chapin called for a program to put "Citizens First!"
The "Citizens First" In Action
The idea of "Citizens First!" starts with the proposition that people acting as citizens must demonstrate their concern for the larger community, their commitment to matters that go beyond short term interests, and their willingness to assume personal responsibility for what happens in their neighborhoods and the community. After all, these are among the defining elements of effective and responsible citizenship.
But the "Citizens First!" theme cuts in another way. Chapin remarked, "To the extent that people are willing to assume (the role of citizens), those ... in government must be willing to listen--to put the needs and values of citizens first in our decisions and our actions. We must reach out in new and innovative ways to understand what our citizens are concerned about. And we must respond to the needs that they believe will help make a better life for themselves and their children. In other words, those of us in government must put citizens first."
Citizens, Not Customers
The idea of "Citizens First!" bears some resemblance to the efforts of many governments to improve "customer service," a theme that has become quite popular recently. But the "Citizens First!" idea recognizes the limitations of treating citizens as "customers."
The relationship between a government and its clients is not the same as that between a business and its customers. For example, the user of government services rarely pays directly for those services in an open marketplace. Moreover, the categories of internal and external customers don't complete the list potentially served by government. What about those who may need the service even though they are not actively seeking it, what about future generations of possible service recipients, and the relatives and friends of the immediate recipient? There may even be customers who don't want to be customers--such as those being given a speeding ticket!
The idea of "Citizens First!" approaches this issue by making a distinction between customer satisfaction according to a private sector model and citizen satisfaction according to a citizenship model, and suggesting that ultimately government must be more concerned with and more responsive to the needs and interests of citizens.
When people act as consumers they tend to take one approach; when they act as citizens they take another. …