Citizenship and Public Service
By Bob and Janet Denhardt
In our last column we wrote of the admiration and pride we felt for the firefighters, police officers, and many other public servants responding to the events of September 11. Since that time, we have continued to witness public service at its best - and we would especially point to the work of law enforcement personnel, public health officials, postal workers, and, of course, those in the armed forces. As we said before, "service to the public - helping people in trouble, making the world safer and cleaner, helping children learn and prosper, literally going where others would not go - is our job and our calling." And we can be very proud of the way we have responded.
But the spirit of public service extends beyond those formally working for government, those we think of as public servants. Ordinary citizens have also wished to contribute. However, the avenues through which they might bring their many talents to bear have been somewhat limited, in part, we think, because over the past several decades we have severely constrained the citizenship role, preferring to think of people as customers or consumers rather than citizens.
Certainly that tendency has been seen in the way we talk about and interact with those people served by public agencies. Following the admonition that "government should be run like a business," we have come to characterize our clients as "customers" rather than "citizens." But that idea doesn't fully ring true with respect to the public service. Should government first or exclusively respond to the selfish, short-term interests of "customers?" In some ways, the idea just doesn't fit. Certainly the "customers" of government are much harder to define than the customers of the local hamburger stand. In fact, it is often because the interests of various "customers" are in opposition to one another that government is called upon to act in the first place. And of course there are some instances in which "customers" of government simply don't want the service government provides - like traffic citations. Most important, in the private sector, those customers with the most money and most influence are accorded special treatment by the market, and that would be ludicrous as public policy.
Henry Mintzberg, the Canadian management theorist, has pointed out the variety of relationships that citizens have to their governments -- customers, clients, citizens, and subjects -- and suggests that the label "customer" is particularly confining. "I am not a mere customer of my government, thank you," he writes. "I expect something more than arm's-length trading and something less than the encouragement to consume." As citizens we expect government to act in a way that not only promotes services (though Mintzberg also asks, "Do we really want our governments . . . hawking products?") but also promotes a set of principles and ideals that are inherent in the public sphere. In our view, citizens cannot be reduced to customers without grave consequences for the notion of democratic citizenship.
As our friend Roz Lasker, Director of the Division of Public Health at The New York Academy of Medicine, points out, thinking of ourselves as customers or consumers rather than citizens affected the way we responded to the events of September 11. She writes, "While we were very proud of our public servants in New York, the catastrophe highlighted serious problems with the ways citizens are viewed in our society. In the aftermath of the attack, millions of New Yorkers (and folks elsewhere in the country) had a strong desire to get directly and actively involved in responding to the crisis. They had valuable knowledge and skills to contribute, and by building a sense of self-efficacy and community efficacy, this kind of involvement could have helped people deal with the profound vulnerability we are all experiencing. Unfortunately, New York (like many other communities around the country) does not have a 'civil society' infrastructure that makes such involvement possible. So people were told to contribute money to charities and spend money in stores, theaters, and restaurants. In other words, they were treated as consumers rather than citizens."
In our view, those in government can and should play an active role in expanding the idea of democratic citizenship. We can begin in our various agencies simply by treating citizens as citizens, not customers, remembering that in a democracy these people are not just our clients or customers, they are our "bosses," and as such they deserve no less than full and complete involvement and participation in our work. In addition, we can and should play a more active role in promoting the development of civil society. We should encourage and support efforts to extend a sense of community in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, and throughout our society. An expansion of democratic citizenship will not only benefit citizens in their work together, but it will help build the spirit of public service throughout society - to the benefit of all. Recall Shakespeare's characterization of mercy: "The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." The same is true of public service.
Bob and Janet Denhardt are Professors in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.
Arizona City/County Management Association
1820 W. Washington Street
Phoenix, AZ 85007
Phone: (602) 258-5786
Fax: (602) 253-3874
ACMA Newsletter Advertsing

Contact Amy Price at
(602) 258-5786 or