Treating citizens as customers

Last month Ingrid Koehler (re)started an interesting discussion on whether citizens should be considered customers. While the debate isn’t necessarily new, it might be back in vogue with a majority of U.S. voters clamoring for change but the nation in a difficult financial situation. In a comment, Kari Manovitch suggests one size doesn’t fit all and that community, customer or citizen are all appropriate terms – depending on what you are trying to accomplish. To that list, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak might add the word partner. It’s no surprise I like the notion that the outcome should dictate the terminology.

The customer vs. citizen debate influences how you design a strategy map using the Balanced Scorecard methodology. In the traditional depiction, the four perspectives are stacked on top of each other with learning & growth at the bottom and financial at the top. However, financial objectives aren’t the primary outcomes for public sector organizations; in fact, many people claim that finances (i.e. budget) are the primary input to the organization’s strategy. This thinking is reflected in the Fulton County School System Strategy Map which has financial performance at the base and customer/stakeholder at the top.

Fulton County might be a Balanced Scorecard Hall of Fame award winner but I’m not sure I agree with putting the financial perspective at the bottom nor with grouping customer and citizen into one perspective. Apparently, I’m not the only one. The Economic Development Agency of the US Dept. of Commerce decided to create two distinct perspectives: customers and stakeholders. From their point of view, customers include the community, investment partners, and others in the private sector. The stakeholders are those that they are accountable to: taxpayers, the White House, and Congress.

While I prefer the second representation, I should remember my own mantra that one size doesn’t fit all and recognize there are valid reasons for other representations. In my classes on the Balanced Scorecard methodology, I address this issue by using the following generic diagram:


Rather than placing one specific perspective on top, I emphasize the relationship between the perspectives.  For many of the agencies I’ve worked with, it’s a good compromise.

Do you think government organizations should treat citizens as customers?

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One Response to Treating citizens as customers

  1. Robert E November 10, 2008 at 12:12 pm #

    You do bring up a very good point about not using words to limit how you look at stakeholders in the public sector. Whether you call the perspective customers, citizens, partners, or stakeholders, the public sector has to consider all of those aspects when defining and dealing with those external groups.
    The perspective name may change its name as it’s cascaded through the organization to make sure that the people who collect the garbage know it’s Customers, while the executive level keeps the Stakeholders happy.

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