What Is the Public’s Role in Government?

The Clinton Administration promoted customer service. The Bush Administration expressed sympathy for taxpayers. The Obama Administration has advocated citizen engagement.

So, who are we? Customers? Taxpayers? Citizens? Or something else? And how should government managers respond, given the differences implied by these various roles? A recent academic article by Georgia State University professor John Clayton Thomas provides some useful context, as well as practical guidelines for public managers. He starts by saying it is not an “either/or” distinction, but rather “all of the above,” depending on context.

The academic literature describes a wide range of roles the public potentially can be described vs. the government, but Dr. Thomas focuses on three where there is substantive interaction with public mangers:

  • The public as Customers
  • The public as Partners
  • The public as Citizens

“The three roles reflect central ideas from successive waves of rethinking public management and public administration over the past half century,” observes Thomas. He goes on to note that “public administrators need to know how to interact with the public in each and all of the three roles.” But they have to first “understand the nature of these publics, including what people expect as citizens, customers, and partners.”

The Public as Customers. Customers of government services, Thomas says, are looking for discrete services, such as garbage pick up. These services tend to be discrete transactions that are either “one-off” services (e.g., applying for a passport) or involve a continuing relationship over time (e.g., job training). Thomas notes “more people interact with government as customers . . . than in any other capacity.”

At the federal level, interest in customer service peaked during the Clinton Administration reinventing government initiative, with a series of presidential directives to develop standards for customer service and track customer satisfaction for various services across the government.

Several guidelines for public managers that the author proposes include:

· At the local level, develop centralized contact points, such as a 311 call center or web page, to receive and respond to citizen inquiries.

· At all levels, make contact points available via mobile devices.

· Provide high-quality customer service and use a case management/customer relations management system

There is currently legislation pending in Congress to require federal agencies to set standards, track performance, and link these efforts to employee performance appraisals.

The Public as Partners. The government is not necessarily the sole provider of services and solutions in a community. Citizens can choose to play a role, as well. Thomas notes: “Crime, for example supposedly cannot be prevented by police action alone; it requires assistance from citizens and communities.”

He goes on to say that today the “pursuit of public ends supposedly occurs mostly through networks of private and nonprofit entities, members of the public, and governments, in a phenomenon that has become known as ‘governance.”” As a result: “extensive coproduction [is seen] as essential because customers must join in ‘customizing’ many products and services. . . . “The need for coproduction has probably expanded as a consequence of the work of government – and the private sector – becoming more about services than products.”

Several guidelines for public managers that the author proposes include:

  • Define the assistance desired in advance and simplify the associated processes as much as possible before reaching out for a public response.
  • Find ways to both encourage public contributions as well as support their ability to contribute (e.g., providing books for volunteers to use to help improve children reading)

Several IBM Center reports address a range of coproduction approaches:

Beyond Citizen Engagement: Involving the Public in Co-Delivering Government Services, by Drs. P.K. Kannan and Ai-Mei Chang, and Engaging Citizens in Co-Creation in Public Services, by Drs. Satish and Priya Nambisan.

The Public as Citizens. The traditional approach to citizen involvement has been via voting. However, President Obama’s signature Open Government initiative in 2009 was aimed at creating a greater role for citizens in developing collective choices about the development of policy as well as the delivery of various services. Federal agencies have developed plans that reflect their strategies for engaging citizens to do this. And at the local level, several communities, such as Chicago, are developing “participatory budgeting” initiatives to engage citizens in making funding choices in their communities.

Several guidelines for public managers that the author proposes include:

  • Define the standards, budget constraints, and other boundaries of citizen involvement in policy or service delivery initiatives.
  • Recognize that meaningful citizen engagement requires sharing some degree of decision-making.
  • Proactively engage the full range of stakeholders involved in a decision, to ensure a sense of legitimacy and fairness in the outcome.
  • Use multiple techniques and offer multiple opportunities for engagement.

Several IBM Center reports address practical approaches public managers can take to better engage citizens in their programs and policies: Public Deliberation: A Manager’s Guide to Citizen Participation, by Carolyn Lukensmeyer and Lars Hasselblad Torres, and A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation, by Dr. Tina Nabatchi.

Key Take-Away. While Dr. Thomas focused on three roles that the public plays in their respective communities, there are others, such as taxpayer, client, stakeholder, “regulated entity,” and user. The key take-away for public managers, though, is that managers need to understand whichever role the public has assumed when interacting with them, since the specific role may define the strategies and approaches public managers may undertake.

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Mark Hammer

I attended a talk by essayist/philosopher John Raulston Saul ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ralston_Saul ), some 12 or 13 years ago, in which he asked the companion questions about public servants. Do they/we simply provide a “client service” (a concept he seemed to despise as pernicious)? Are we not also citizens? Are we in an adversarial relationship with citizens? How is the public service separate from the citizenry, and ought it to be? Maybe the place to start is not by asking about “them” (citizens), but by erasing the barrier that presumes there is some difference between citizens and the bureaucracy.

John Kamensky

Hi Mark – Thanks for the comment. I’m no philosopher, but do like to see practical applications of ideas. What, in a real world context, would “erasing the barrier” look like for the public or a government employee? At the local level, in state programs, in a federal agency?

Mark Hammer

An entirely appropriate and fair question.

I don’t know if you ever have, but I’ve had the pleasure of being a member of a small congregation. It was small, not because it was weird or a breakaway sect, but simply because it was geographically isolated and there wasn’t that big of a community to draw from. Being small, it did not have a sufficient membership to pay anyone to provide specialized services. The result was that everyone collaborated on pretty much everything because there was no one whose “job” it was to fill this or that function. It was a delightfully cooperative congregation, and I had the honour of being clergy-for-a-day now and then. Once we moved to places where the congregation was large enough and established enough, there was a tacit assumption that “so-and-so will do it”, that is was “their job”. The same faces headed up the various committees. And once it was their job, the likelihood of them pleasing anyone started to drop.

The conceptual barrier that it is their “job” is something we constantly grapple with in the public sector. I think one of the best illustrations of this is what happens within education. Why is it the teacher’s “job” to convey moral reasoning, sex education, literacy, civic duty, world knowledge? Why isn’t it the parent’s primary responsibility and the teacher simply helps because the parents have other things they need to do? When we become the “customer”, too often we delegate responsibility to someone else for what is properly our shared responsibility. From that perspective, once the citizen becomes the customer, and the public servant the service-provider, you’ve already lost the battle for citizen engagement. As public servant, I’m here to help, but I’m not here to replace or displace.

So, “erasing the barrier” implies asking other citizens “what should we do to address this particular challenge?”, rather than asking “what do you want us to do differently?”. So, at a concrete level, part of what I’m suggesting is a change in the language, and the dialectic of public-servant/citizen (or public-servant/customer).

At least a tiny part of what prevents that change from happening is the strength of public-sector unions, whose initial response would likely be “whoa, there, we don’t want to forfeit these jobs by bringing ‘the public’ in!”. And I respect that view, but again, it is the public resentment as paying customer, that creates as much (if not more) risk to the sustainability of those jobs, as any sort of collaborative we’re-all-citizens attitude might.

Is that a little more of what you’re curious to get me to articulate?

David Dean

We are something else. We are employers. We are taxpayers. Public employees are not elected, they are appointed. Public employees are just that, employees. They work for us. Simple concept. Eliminates all doubt.

Mark Hammer

But do they abrogate all their rights and interests AS citizens? They/we certainly shouldn’t be privileged citizens, but there ought not to be any “them” and “us”. It’s ALL “us”.

Peter Sperry

David — Somewhere north of 100,000,000 people voted in the last election. So yes public employees work for you. Your equal share of treating them like low grade serfs is less than 1 in 100,000,000. I am sure we will give it all the attention it deserves.

David Dean

What are you attempting to say? Public employees are paid with public money. They are employed by the public. Nothing mystic about it, i.e., public servant.

David Dean


Federal employees do not abrogate rights and interests as citizens. Waiters, police, trash collectors, or other employees do lose rights as citizens. They are employees just as federal employees. All employees sell their time for money, or some other medium of exchange. Why a special status for federal employees? There will always be us and them.

John Kamensky

Mark (et al) — thanks for the thoughtful response to my request for elaboration on your initial comment. I think your description points to the third role that Dr. Thomas describes — the public as a partner. I agree that the roles are not an “either/or” choice but rather a “both/and” description. . . . Public service reaches beyond the institution of democratic government that is “of the people and by the people.”

Mark Hammer

My comments are in response to John’s original question about “the public’s role in government”. My own view (but shared by others) is that when one separates “government” from “the public”, regardless of who pays for what or who hires whom, that public policy and citizen engagement has been done a disservice. Not impeded, but certainly dented.

Dale M. Posthumus

The similarities of private and public employees don’t make us the “same”, just as our difference don’t make it “us versus them”. As customers, public and private employees are equal before the govt. We all have to go to the state govt to get our driver’s license. One important difference, however is that, in the public sector, people have options – you don’t like Walmart, you go to Meijer or Safeway or ShopRite or one of many other sources. You think Verizon is not treating you well, you can switch to T-Mobile or another carrier.In the public sector, people don’t have much in the way of choice – you’re poor and need health insurance, only the govt has Medicaid. You want a driver’s license, you can only get it from your state govt. But, as servers to the general public, most in the private sector have competition and employers will act fast if an employee is not serving the customer. The govt has a relative if not virtual monoply on most of what it does. The employer (manager) is restricted in how fast and what he/she may do to an underperforming employee. I believe the most important thing public sector managers and working stiffs need is to remember to treat their customers with respect and do what they can to serve their needs in a timely manner (this applies to the private sector employees as well).

Kerry Nye

The Public, or rather the People, ARE the Government, and our current Ruling Elite Congressional Class has conveniently for them, forgotten this very important fact. They have tried to BURY this fact, to keep the Sheeple on the Federal Plantation. The Government Workers should also remember this, that all of them, like Congress, work for US.

Peter Sperry

Kerry — please define “US”

As noted above, “The traditional approach to citizen involvement has been via voting.” There have been many efforts to augment and/or bypass voting but few have been successful. Almost all open government initiatives which attempt to facilitate direct citizen decision making degenerate into government by the most vocal at best or mob rule at worst.

Without rehashing 5000 years of the history of government, representative democracy has emerged as the worst form of government known to man except for all the other types which have been tried. If anyone has a suggestion for a new type which could displace representative democracy as the least worst; write it up and submit it to the Nobel committee. It would be the most significant advancement in governance since the 17th century.

Meanwhile, citizens elect representatives who select, direct and supervise public employees. Public employees work for citizens but report to elected representatives. Public employees do not, should not and cannot act as if they reported directly to citizens. We would have to radically alter our day to day activities depending on whether the mob out front consisted of unwashed, overage hippies banging a drum against the 1% or snake flag waving colonial wannabes.

Every protest movement claims to represent “the people”. So do the activists who show up at public hearings, respond to requests for comments, testify at hearings etc. Very few of them represent more than a small handful of vocal special interests. The are sanctimonious, self righteous and loud but rarely representative. Which is why we default to government by elected representatives.

The public has an unambiguous right to vote for or against candidates for elected office, communicate their concerns and desires to elected officials, evaluate their performance in office and base their decisions in the next election on the individual citizens judgment of the elected officials performance in office. Public employees, being citizens themselves, have the right to do the same. No more but no less either. No public employee in federal, state or local should have any particular special privileges or authority not directly required for the performance of their duty; but none should be denied the basic rights of citizenship by virtue of where they work. In all but the most unusual circumstances the former constitutes a Federal felony and the latter is unconstitutional.

The “current Ruling Elite Congressional Class” are reminded of this fact every two years. Few of them forget it. Most have it tattooed on the inside of their eyelids. Government workers also always remember they, like Congress, work for the people. In practice, this means we work for whichever version of “US” produces a majority of votes in 218 Congressional elections, 51 Senate races and the Presidential campaign.

In almost every instance that people claim government is not working for “US”, the “US” they are describing is a much smaller group of voters than the “US” whose favored candidate won the last election. Such people might want to consider whether they will advance their cause more by directing anger at public employees or reasoned discussions with their fellow voters.

Or they could just move to Canada and enjoy a Westminster style government which is soooo much more responsive. http://www.yes-minister.com/introduc.htm

Dale M. Posthumus

Peter, I sort of agree and sort of disagree with your comments. Yes, the primary way the citizenry (which includes Govt employees equally) affect policy and service/product delivery is through the vote. And, yes, govt employees are responsible to the elected executive(s) to whom they report. But, their ultimate responsibility is to the citizenry. IMHO, that means every effort to deliver to the public whatever product and/or service is part of their mission in the most effective, cost-efficient, respectful way possible. Most Federal employees are responsible to the President, not to Congress – they are part of the Executive Branch of the US Govt.

Representative democracy has not done a great deal to tone down the rhetoric of those who talk the loudest and the most. It still exists, just look at local govt when they address a zoning/development issue. Protests, meetings, and advertsing, and now social media, are the methods of discussing and/or shouting your opinion. Although I wish people would voluntarily tone down their passion a bit, I would much rather have this pandimonium where everybody who wants to speak gets that chance (defend against the shout-down) than let the Govt further restrict free speech.

Regarding direct democracy, Switzerland still has some forms of a direct democracy structure, although it has been declining over the past several decades. US states with a referenda system have a form of direct democracy. In Maryland, it can only be used relative to laws already passed, not to initiate a new law. In Michigan, the system allows for stautory and constitutional referenda.

Since I have buried my main point in my discussion, I will repeat it here — the role of the public in govt is to speak up through voting, writing their representatives, and insisting on good service. The role of public servants is to deliver quality services per their mission. An important attitude for both is respect and politeness.

Elena Miller

Gentlemen, kudos to you all for such a passionate discussion, yet I’d like to hear less rhetoric…
To me, the labeling of the public as customers or partners is all wrong. Why do we even have the need to label or categorize the public? Dictionary defines this noun in a very simple way: “the people constituting a community, state or nation”. Logically, government (a controlling body) is the product of any civilized community, state or nation. We appoint the government to serve people’s needs; we place our trust in the government to run our affairs in civilized and lawful manner.
In my opinion, all of us are consumers first; the government is a consumer just as much. I have nothing against of private businesses calling me their customer but definitely do not want to be called a customer by my government.
Sadly, more and more I see tendencies (equally in the public and government) to forget all that our Founding Fathers wanted us to be…

Mark Hammer


My own point is certainly not to decry any particular governance structure, or system, OR to advocate for any sort of “government by the people” that would permit or impose unilateral action by lone wolf public servants (essentially micro-dictatorships). Rather, it is to simply urge folks to consider that everyone in the legislative and bureaucratic sides of government IS a citizen, and not any separate adversary or overseer of citizens. Solutions to problems that we all face should be broached as collective action, even though maybe only a few are tasked with actually taking the action on behalf of others. Sir Robert Peel, who established the London Police Force in the 1820’s, provided the basic principles of policing that still guide police forces in western democracies today: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peelian_Principles The people are the police, and the police are the people.

This general topic is somewhat the complement to a current post of David Grinberg’s on “transparency”. When one adopts the perspective that government “serves” customers, then what happens in the kitchen or backroom doesn’t need to be made comprehensible or evident to that customer, since they are really only concerned with the value for money of the result. In that sense, the customer service orientation is anathema to transparency.

When one adopts the perspective that we are all accomplishing some important objective together, with me (as bureaucrat)doing more of the active aspect, while your participation is more confined to receiving some benefit is mere happenstance, the inclination toward both transparency and accountability is greater. As team member, I need to tell you how and why we are abut to do what we are about to do. As spectator, I leave it to you to either revel or grumble, without explaining my choices.

My point is that by changing the language, we change the perspective, and in doing so bring out the best in all citizens; those that make decisions for other citizens, those that provide services to them, and those whose needs are met by those decisions and services, and whose needs in turn shape the decisions.

That does not require any change to structure, merely a change in reminders of what our attitudes and perceptions should be.