This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thinking 'customer' harms the public good

I have been batting on about public services not having customers per se for many years now. (You can read a previous blog post about this here.) To summarise, public services have far more complex relationships with members of the public who are simultaneously citizens (with rights), taxpayers (who fund), voters (to whom the politicians are accountable), partners (in co-creating improved social outcomes) and service users (who have a range of complicated needs and wants and ambitions). Sometimes people do not want to be customers at all (such as people who are arrested by the police!) Yes people should be given good customer service but that does not make them customers. Delivering a public service is not a simple transaction of money like buying a pizza. To call citizens/taxpayers/users/voters/partners merely customers is, in my view, dangerously simplistic.

Why dangerously?

I was at a meeting of my District Council last night. It was a get together of District, Parish, and Town Councillors with senior officers of the District Council in attendance. It was a useful meeting with plenty of dialogue and debate: far more interactive than a previous 'consultation' meeting. I learnt lots which I have just reported back to my fellow town councillors.

An ongoing bone of contention is car parking in Buckingham. As a town council we think that the car park should be free (at least for the first couple of hours) so that people are encouraged to come into the town centre and linger rather than go and park for free at the Tescos paddock. We want people to linger in our town: lingering boosts the local economy, helps create community... and keeps Buckingham alive! In this respect we look longingly at West Oxfordshire District Council who manage to keep all of their car parks free. So in this way PM David Cameron, when he pops into his local shopping centre, does not have to pay. The council even advertise this fact on the A40 bypass around Witney.

However, my local district council sees the car park as an asset to milk. And as I was told last night: why shouldn't the 'customers' of the car park pay for the privilege of parking there? They are customers. Customers pay for things. Therefore we will be increasing the car parking charges next year to pay for 'loss' that the car park is currently experiencing. (This loss comes from, by the way, the rates payable on the land, some notional rent to the council and the costs of enforcing the car parking charges. They might also be trying to recoup the cost of repairing the ticket machines which were all vandalised last year in a vain attempt to get money out of them.)

Indeed, they see it as unfair that other council taxpayers would be subsidising the car park 'customers' if they had their car parking for 'free'.

However, the car park is already paid for out of municipal taxes. It is publicly owned land. It is a social good that helps support the local economy. Indeed when I suggested last night that local businesses would benefit from having more free hours in the car park, I was told that the District Council would see none of that benefit in return: extra corporation tax or VAT goes straight to the Chancellor. So much for thinking about total places...

So the use of the word customer is dangerous because it commodifies and compartmentalises the relationship between a public body and the publics it serves. 'Users should pay...' kind of thinking leads to regressive taxation (that taxes the poor more) and indeed double taxation (people are paying twice for a public good). This kind of thinking leads to actions which are very unfair.

It also erodes the sense of partnership between the public and their public services. The relationship becomes a financial transaction as the public service looks for way to get more money out of the public. Now I think there is much to be had by developing coherent and creative resource / income generating strategies: but these strategies need to be ethically coherent as well.

Simply seeing the local car park as a cash cow risks far more than our local economy. It risks the whole relationship between the public and their public services. 

So let's not keep using the word 'customer' in a simplistic way: it harms the public good! 

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