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Know Which Public You Are Serving


The Clinton administration promoted customer service. The Bush administration expressed sympathy for taxpayers. The Obama administration has advocated citizen engagement.

So, who are we? Customers? Taxpayers? Citizens? Or something else? And how should government managers respond, given the differences implied by these various roles? A recent academic article by Georgia State University professor John Clayton Thomas provides some useful context, as well as practical guidelines for public managers. He starts by saying it is not an “either/or” distinction, but rather “all of the above,” depending on context.

The article describes a wide range of roles the public potentially can be ascribed in the context of government, but Thomas focuses on three that involve substantive interaction with public managers:

  • The public as customers
  • The public as partners
  • The public as citizens

“The three roles reflect central ideas from successive waves of rethinking public management and public administration over the past half century,” observes Thomas. He goes on to say “public administrators need to know how to interact with the public in each and all of the three roles.” But they have to first “understand the nature of these publics, including what people expect as citizens, customers and partners,” he adds.

The Public as Customers

Customers of government services, Thomas says, are looking for distinct services, such as garbage pickup. These services tend to be discrete transactions that are either one-off services (e.g., applying for a passport) or involve a continuing relationship (e.g., job training). Thomas notes “more people interact with government as customers . . . than in any other capacity.”

At the federal level, interest in customer service peaked during the Clinton administration’s reinventing government initiative, with a series of presidential directives to develop standards for customer service and track customer satisfaction in various operations across government.

The author proposes the following guidelines for public managers:

  • At the local level, develop centralized contact points -- such as a 311 call center or Web page -- to receive and respond to citizen inquiries
  • At all levels of government, make contact points available via mobile devices
  • Provide high-quality customer service and use a case management/customer relations management system

Pending legislation  would require federal agencies to set standards, track performance and link these efforts to employee performance appraisals.

The Public as Partners

The government is not necessarily the sole provider of services and solutions in a community. Citizens can choose to play a role, as well. Thomas notes: “Crime, for example, supposedly cannot be prevented by police action alone; it requires assistance from citizens and communities.”

He goes on to say that today the “pursuit of public ends supposedly occurs mostly through networks of private and nonprofit entities, members of the public, and governments, in a phenomenon that has become known as ‘governance.’ ” As a result: “extensive co-production [is seen] as essential because customers must join in ‘customizing’ many products and services . . . . The need for co-production has probably expanded as a consequence of the work of government -- and the private sector -- becoming more about services than products.”

The author proposes the following guidelines for public managers:

  • Define the assistance desired in advance and simplify the associated processes as much as possible before reaching out for a public response
  • Find ways to both encourage public contributions as well as support citizens’ ability to contribute (e.g., providing books for volunteers who can help children improve their reading)

The IBM Center for the Business of Government addresses a range of co-production approaches in these reports: Beyond Citizen Engagement: Involving the Public in Co-Delivering Government Services by P.K. Kannan and Ai-Mei Chang, and Engaging Citizens in Co-Creation in Public Services by Satish and Priya Nambisan.

The Public as Citizens

The traditional approach to citizen involvement has been voting. But President Obama’s signature Open Government initiative in 2009 was aimed at creating a greater role for citizens in developing collective choices about the development of policy as well as the delivery of services. Federal agencies have developed plans that reflect their strategies for engaging citizens. And at the local level, cities such as Chicago are developing “participatory budgeting” initiatives to engage citizens in making funding choices in their communities.

The author proposes the following guidelines for public managers:

  • Define the standards, budget constraints and other boundaries of citizen involvement in policy or service delivery initiatives
  • Recognize that meaningful citizen engagement requires sharing some degree of decision-making
  • Proactively engage the full range of stakeholders involved in a decision to ensure a sense of legitimacy and fairness in the outcome
  • Use multiple techniques and offer multiple opportunities for engagement

These IBM Center reports address practical approaches public managers can take to better engage citizens in their programs and policies: Public Deliberation: A Manager’s Guide to Citizen Participation by Carolyn Lukensmeyer and Lars Hasselblad Torres, and A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation by Tina Nabatchi.

While Thomas focused on three roles members of the public can play in their respective communities, there are others, such as taxpayer, client, stakeholder, “regulated entity” and user. The key takeaway for public managers, though, is to understand which role citizens have assumed when interacting with them. The specific role may define the strategies and approaches public managers should pursue.

(Image via WhiteTag/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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