How to Figure Out Who Your Government Customer Is

We in government are in a unique situation when asked, “Who is our customer?” Off the top of our head we answer, “The public are our customers. Those whose tax dollars fund government are our customers!”

But is that truly how we operate? It’s time to reflect on our actions and the actions of those for which we are accountable.

Sometimes, employees are confused as to whether they are supposed to serve their department, the boss, or the public. On any given day, this is the dilemma faced by many. When the demands of all are in alignment, the decision is easy for staff. When these are in conflict, therein lies the problem. We’d like to say the public’s needs always come first, but when faced with budget restrictions, leadership demands, and opposing public desires, there isn’t always a clear choice.

Often, workers take the path of least resistance. Staff, as well as management, find it difficult to strike a reasonable balance in knowing how to weigh the priorities of stakeholders. They end up satisfying one, at the expense of another.

The most common dilemma faced is obeying the orders of a supervisor, despite knowing in one’s heart of hearts that may not be the “right” choice when the greater good is considered. Here are a few playful profiles to illustrate.

The Department Dictator

This person does anything and everything to benefit their department, creating adversarial relationships with other departments. They believe their department’s needs take precedence over the others and will not hesitate to point out blame or errors in the actions of opponents. They believe themselves to be admirably loyal to their department.

The Obedient Yes Man/Woman

This employee will never reveal that the emperor has no clothes. They will do whatever the boss wants, will not question, and dare not correct. They cater to their commander, even at the expense of their coworkers, the public, their organization, and their dignity.

The Public Pleaser

This worker will do the right thing and take care of the customer. Unfortunately, he/she may go through great extent to serve the public clients but disregard their supervisor who may have a broader perspective of the situation and is trying to ensure the needs of the greater community, rather than a single interest group.

The truth of the matter is that situations demand a thorough and thoughtful assessment of the facts and factors involved. Yes, the ultimate purpose is to act on behalf of the public. However, to do so effectively, one must consider the bigger picture and be true to the unit’s vision and purpose. Workers must navigate the path of regulations and priorities of influencers in the process to final deliverables, and sometimes contemplate the deliverables themselves. Here are a few questions to ponder:

  1. Have you considered both short-term and long-term consequences and benefits?
  2. Have you consulted all key stakeholders?
  3. What is the impact on others?
  4. Do your actions align with your stated objective?
  5. Does this decision stand the “headline” test? (I.e. How would this appear if it were posted as a newspaper headline?)

If you are ordered to ignore any of the above inquiries, that is a big red flag. These questions should help to steer you in the right direction in case you find yourself leaning a bit too heavily in one direction, potentially serving the needs of one party rather than the intended beneficiary of your effort.

As a government employee, you are here to serve. The public entrusts you with their hard-earned tax dollars to seek optimum solutions, act in their best interest, and represent them with honesty and integrity. It is easy to lose sight of this when the needs of superiors, coworkers, and the public are in conflict. If you have not considered the five questions above, start now. Also, don’t hesitate to check in with a trusted adviser who does not have a stake in the game.

Lori Okami is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She has over nine years of experience in local and state government in Human Resources, grants management, and as an educator, as well as over twenty years in the private sector. Lori has written over 400 health and fitness blogs for Hawaii’s premiere online news publication. Lori’s expertise is in organization alignment, change management, and customer relationship management (CRM). You can read her posts here.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

Great post! I think you are exactly right to bring it back to the citizens, and as you noted they trust public servants to act in their best interest.