Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again?

There is an intriguing passage in yesterday’s Guardian Inside Politics column by Allegra Stratton. The main point of the piece is to highlight the restlessness, in the run up to the party conference, of some more right wing Conservative. But in passing the article notes that:

Relations between the Department of Work and Pensions and Cameron’s officials are strained. They were first damaged when employment minister Chris Grayling tried to ban the use of the word “customer” to describe claimants but was outmanoeuvred by civil servants.”It is mad they call them customers”, said a Cabinet Office source. “It means they have precisely the wrong attitude to reform. If you call them customers and then have to whittle down the numbers using their service – well, that’s like telling Boots to close stores and tell all their customers to eff off; it just wouldn’t happen.”

Given the history of public service reform – which for so long has placed notions of consumerism at its core – these comments are remarkable.

Someone somewhere in the Cabinet Office thinks that the use of the term “customer” is inappropriate precisely because it carries undesirable connotations of entitlement, power, and choice. The analogy with the private sector – a cornerstone of so much thinking over three decades – is explicitly rejected.

But it is not being rejected in favour of a return to the era of the technocratic welfare state.

What we need is a language that suggests that service users shouldn’t get quite so cocky. There’s too great a sense of entitlement. Service users should be counting themselves lucky that they aren’t the ones who have been “whittled down”. They should be grateful that their requests for assistance have not only been heard, but graciously acceded to. They should be demonstrating, through their actions in pursuit of their own self-improvement, that they are worthy. They should abase themselves. Suppliants.

Undoubtedly this is in keeping with the Patrician air of this government. But perhaps to achieve the welfare state transformations that the “modernisers” are seeking we might expedite the process by recovering a more venerable discourse. Public service user as Serf anybody?

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