Over the last week or two at work I've actually started being a little bit naughty.
The webteam in Birmingham here, like many council webteams, sits within the Customer Services division of the council, rather than within either Corporate Communications or IT, like in many other councils. This means the word which underpins all the work we do is the word 'customer'.
Being frank, I was never particularly happy about us being moved from comms to cs when it happened - as a person out on the street who buys things, my overwhelming experience and view of 'customer services' is they're the people you take a faulty product back to, who spend a lot of time trying to pursuade you it isn't faulty, or the people you complain about an intangible service to, who spend a lot of time telling you the majority of their customers think the service is just peachy. I, frankly, have never been happy about my job being associated with that sort of thing.
I've also never really liked this description of our website users as customers, but it's only in the last few weeks or so I've been able to really crystalise why I've never really liked it. The first reason is one which I've shared a lot in many arenas, and which underpins a lot of my discomfort with a number of current council website trends - customer services divisions of councils seem to have quite a skewed view of who their customers are, focusing on the people who are complaining about potholes, missed bin collections, and leaky taps in their council houses. Those might be the biggest numbers of customers, but that shouldn't exclude the business customers (large and small), the visitor customers, and the politically-engaged customers - those other groups, because they don't register as big numbers in the statistics, it is often a struggle to get counted as also important.
The second reason i realised more recently why I don't like the word is that actually, very few of any of these people are actually customers in the usual sense of the word - customers are people who have a choice, who can take their custom elsewhere if the initial provider doesn't live up to expectation.
But for most services, council customers don't have a choice to go elsewhere - it's only councils who provide the service of fixing potholes, collecting bins, and fixing leaky taps in council houses; the customers are stuck with our service, whether we provide a good one or not. Not just that, customers are people who not only can choose who to have a service from, but they can also choose to have a service at all - but our customers have a right to these services of having their potholes fixed and their bins collected; by referring to them as customers, we're actually denigrating the fact that they have rights. And similarly, customers have the option to not choose a service - but council tax customers don't have an option to not pay their council tax!
So a couple of weeks ago at work I started, clearly and pointedly, in all emails and spoken conversations, no longer referring to customers, and instead referring to citizens - citizenship is what we want to promote in our towns, boroughs, cities, and counties, citizens encompasses everybody ensuring groups don't get dismissed, and citizens to me emphasises the fact that they have rights to our service rather than being people who should be grateful for it. And specifically when it comes to web services, I've returned to what should never have been dropped in the first place - referring to web users as, well, users.
Interestingly, not long after I first wrote this, internally the organisation did indeed start to replace the word 'customer' with the word 'citizen' in all its communications - I wonder if it was my effect that did it?Public / Third Sector Digital