That’s not my name
Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me…
We learn this lesson when we’re four years old and as soon as we become adults we promptly forget it as we learn the importance of language.
It was ever thus and never more so than when those of us in local government try and work out what to call the people we provide services for. Bearing in mind that this debate could be reduced to one of semantics it causes real consternation amongst us officers.
With this in mind, and in the spirit of starting a debate, here is the we love local government guide to what to call those pesky people who are not local government officers:
This is a fairly straightforward one right? We work for service users, i.e. people who use the services we provide. Job done! But no, hold your horses there a second… What about those people who would use the services if they knew more about them? And what about those people who need the services but don’t currently use them? Using the expression service user excludes them right?
Ok, so we need to look elsewhere. What about the classic:
This definitely works. Everyone in the Borough is a resident and therefore if we use the expression resident we’re not excluding anyone right? But no, you’ve got two problems here. Firstly, by treating everyone equally you’re not factoring in that the views of someone who needs a service are definitely more important than those of someone who never uses any services. Secondly, what about those from outside the borough who use our services? Doesn’t the use of the term resident exclude businessmen, tourists and people who work in our local authority? They’re surely too important to forget?
Now, does this stray into being ideological? How can we call them customers when they are not able to have choice over which provider they use and often aren’t even paying for the service (except through their council tax)? Well, one reason is that we are trying to create choice and make the decisions over which service to use more like those people make when choosing which shop to go to. Fine, it’s an ideological thing right? But what about those services that are geographically determined? People aren’t usually able to move house to get a better bin service are they? But they can choose their leisure centre.
Ok, so it doesn’t always work but surely we can capture it in another way… What about service user? Now you’re just being awkward.
Now this one is definitely not my favourite but it is hard to argue against. Stakeholder means we don’t miss anyone out so it’s perfect right? A catch all term that catches everyone and doesn’t exclude anyone. Hold on a minute; if something covers everything it fails to differentiate between people? Surely, a word that means everything also means nothing. Try again.
Ok, here’s a good one:
Council tax payer
So we’re excluding children and the poor, to name but two, now are we?
Ok, how about:
Hmmm, I love the word but don’t we have the same problem as with stakeholders? And we do provide services for those who are not citizens don’t we?
So what are we to do? Firstly, stop getting so het up about how we describe the people who we serve. Secondly, realise that universal names don’t work. Universally decreeing that we must describe everyone as customers is not going to help any more than seeing everyone as merely a council tax payer. And if anyone fancies adding a few names to the list do let us know!