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Külli Taro: Citizens owners, not customers of a state

Külli Taro.
Külli Taro. Source: ERR

A private company's customer cannot make executive decisions, demand to see the books or have a say in what type of services it offers. A citizen has all of these rights when it comes to their country, Külli Taro says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

I recently read a letter where a person complained about being referred to as a customer by a state agency. And about having been told they were under no obligation to explain anything to a mere client.

Use of private sector words like "customer" and "service" to refer to citizens and public tasks is a part of modern administration. I believe that public sector employees have been taught ad nauseam about the importance of customer service, customer satisfaction and a pleasant customer experience at various management trainings.

For as long as this language is used to emphasize that the state's activities need to be aimed at the satisfaction of citizens and not bureaucratic procedures and the convenience of officials, it works as an effective device. But in truth, boiling the citizen down to a mere customer is degrading and works to understate their role.

To continue in the vein of such terminology, a citizen is the owner of their country, not just someone using services. A citizen has far greater rights and obligations in front of their country than a customer has in front of a private company.

Can you imagine the board of a company refusing to answer the owner's questions? A minister has no right to refuse to answer the questions of citizens, irrespective of whether they are journalists or ordinary people from the street.

A private company's customer cannot make executive decisions, demand to see the books or have a say in what type of services it offers. A citizen has every one of these rights when it comes to their country.

At the same time, the citizen is obligated to use services they might not want (such as compulsory school attendance or military service). And pay taxes for services they do not need (such as social welfare or investments into infrastructure they never use).

If the private sector is characterized by the saying that "he who pays the piper calls the tune," when it comes to its public counterpart, those who pay more have no right to demand or receive a better service.

The state holds the monopoly as the service provider in its territory. The citizen cannot choose between several policing or food safety supervision services.

A private company's income and survival depends on how many customers they can attract and keep. State agencies operate based on different motivation and have budgets that are not always tied to the number of "customers" they have. Nor should they be as some agencies are best left without customers, especially orphanages or penal institutions.

It also happens in the public sector that the customer or beneficiary is society in general rather than the person receiving the service or making contact. The police's customer is not the thief but rather the victim of the crime and other people whose security catching the perpetrator protects.

A private company can choose whether to offer a customer services. The state has no such choice. It must also attend to impolite citizens and downright blackguards. This is where public servants need protecting the most. While functioning as society's lightning-rod can be part of the job description, putting up with personal insults and verbal abuse shouldn't. Officials and politicians are also equal owners of the state, not underlings or serfs.

If the state really were a corporation (which it most certainly is not), the citizen would be a shareholder who together with other equal shareholders would make up the general meeting. The latter, that is to say the people, would elect the supervisory board, which in this case would be the parliament. And the supervisory board would appoint the management board, just as the parliament appoints the government.

The state does not exist for the benefit of the management or the supervisory board, not for public servants and politicians or individual social groups – it exists for all equal citizens. If using the world "customer" helps maintain that goal, the play on language will have justified itself.

Next time you are referred to as a customer at a state agency, remind them that you are really the owner. A fitting reminder following celebrations of the anniversary of restoration of independence.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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