That’s not my name


Names can be important... and very unimportant

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:

Service User

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:

Resident

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?

What next?Customer

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.

How about:

Stakeholder

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:

Citizen

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!

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15 Comments on “That’s not my name”

  1. LG Worker Says:

    Surely we’re not citizens, we’re royal subjects?!?

    Another name – Electorate (lots of problems here)

    Personally I usually use resident. This does miss out a lot of people but I find it helps to make me remember that it is the people out there (even if they don’t know me or want the service) that I should be working for.

    Another name for some of the people who aren’t officers – Councillors.

    • misskrin Says:

      When I read the headline on twitter last night my first thought was “Excellent, they’ve written a piece about councillors!” forgetting that the welovelocalgov people had already written that piece.

      Love this article, a very good analysis of the pitfalls of each term, and that in the end we can’t use the same term for everyone.

      Extra love for largely rejecting the use of consumer. This is a personal hate: I am more than my consumption habits, so please don’t reduce my motivations simply to this category!

  2. Jon Harvey Says:

    For me, stakeholder, is still the best all round cover all term – although I know it comes with a ‘politically correct’ label attached to it. I have blogged (endlessly) elsewhere about why ‘customer’ should not be used a short hand (although in some cases it is a correct term to use): http://jonharveyassociates.blogspot.com/2009/09/citizens-not-customers.html

    I am reminded of the ‘we’re getting there’ campaign run by British Rail (as was). We saw Jimmy Saville on station platforms – inside the organisation – was a customer care campaign in full swing. But it all died a death about 9 months later. I phoned up the chap who had run the campaign and asked him what happened. He said it was blooming obvious in hindsight – BR were asking their frontline staff to care for customers but no one was caring for them (people further up the supply chain, managers etc.) – so they thought – why should we bother.

    Interestingly they invented a new campaign a while later which was grandly called “Organising for Quality”

    This got shortened to “O for Q” – which remains true to this day of course….!

    • localgov Says:

      Organising for Quality?! I have to say that’s not the most inspiring of slogans!

    • misskrin Says:

      There’s a lot of work in public administration and public policy theory around the impact of the “street-level bureaucrat”. In a nutshell, it’s all well and good to have highlevel plans, strategies and policies, but unless the people who deliver the policy are engaged and on board then you may have a serious skew or reverse on the intent of the policy.

      The converse finding, and I felt not always clearly explored in the literature, is that the people who deliver services and implement policies are incredibly important so ensure you are supporting and engaging with them as priority. Something that we in government constantly struggle with, in my experience.

      The British Rail initiative sounds like a classic example. Love the abbreviation!

  3. cb Says:

    We tend to use service user in social services. And we use it to cover people who don’t actually use the services but who potentially would/could/may! Whether that’s a correct user or not I don;t know. I think it more accurately covers those whom we work with than any of the other possibilities.
    As for customer – that seems to imply a greater choice in the process of consuming or not and some of our statutory tasks are rarely positive choices.

  4. Roger White Says:

    Horses for courses – different names needed at different times. You could also add – pupil, parent. client, voter…BUT NEVER PUNTER which sometimes find fashion with some staff/managers

  5. pseudograph Says:

    In Hull we specifically addressed this issue in our Customer Strategy – ‘Constant Customer Focus’.

    That said, “Whilst government talks about ‘residents’, we use the word ‘customer’ to refer to residents, citizens, clients, service-users, both individually and collectively. We use the word because we believe it carries ideas about how we should behave, and deliver value. That does not mean that the other words cannot be used interchangeably, but we use ‘customer’ in this document to refer to all individuals and communities who have an interest in what we do and the services we deliver”.

    That might not/does not satisfy everyone.

    We have people who don’t like to be called customers; people who don’t think they *are* customers, even if they are okay with being referred to that way, and those who don’t think others should be called customers. And it might not resolve the conundrum (if that’s what this is), but it does seem to hint at a key concern, which might well be that the nomenclature is actually much less important than the behaviours which accompany any activity: what we call the people and communities we work with (and for) is probably much less important than how we treat them.

  6. Dis Gruntled Says:

    How about “captive bill payer”, “funder”, “cheque-book holder” or just simply “mugs”?

  7. Andrew H Says:

    When I worked in local taxation recovery the members of the public I dealt with were referred to as debtors – they certainly were not taxpayers. And oh, what joy when they said ‘I pay your wages’ – Oh no you don’t otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    More seriously there is no one right word for ‘them’ as localgov has eloquently demonstrated.


  8. I had a go at this one a few years ago – http://publicstrategist.com/2008/02/customers-citizens-and-claimants/ – it’s a question which never quite gets solved and never quite goes away. I think that we have to recognise that there is no perfect answer and that we should resist the temptation to think that if we only look a bit harder we will find one.

    Or of course we can duck the question and call them ‘people’, though I don’t myself think that’s the right answer either – http://publicstrategist.com/2010/02/the-patients-have-run-out/

  9. benlowndes Says:

    The Government dislikes the term ‘stakeholder’ – quite rightly – and it shouldn’t be used in anything other than an internal context anyway.

    The striving for a single ‘catch all’ term overlooks the fact that we are all different, which is a fundamental fact that everyone in the public sector is aware of. There are, however, plenty of ‘normal’ words that we use that could be brought back into local government language. What about people, families, employees, colleagues, men, women, adults, children?


  10. […] we need to really understand our customers (or whatever we choose to call them) and what they actually want. Sometimes we are tempted to follow the logic of the Field of […]


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