Westminster View: We the users

As my American friends celebrated Independence Day, my thoughts turned to the beautifully worded preamble to their constitution:

"We the Users of the United States in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America..."

I have only changed one word but I’ve changed everything haven’t I?

"We the customers of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility..."

Not much better.

That is because both users and consumers implies quite a limited, transactional relationship. Both nouns are bastardised verbs describing what someone does rather than who they are. Which naturally leads us to the ongoing debate on what to call the human beings who interact with public services.

There have been a few interesting posts in this area recently.

HereRussell Davies argues for "user".

Stefan Czerniawski, responds by examining three choices - people vs user vs consumer - and ending with a nice nuance about a change he sees occurring: I was considering this in the light of our Review of Digital Government and the broader Labour party narrative of decentralisation away from Whitehall and promotion of 'people powered' services.

Davies argues against ‘people’ on the basis that “If you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems.”

Every time I hold a surgery I meet constituents whose Kafkaesque difficulties with organisations – both public and private – can only be explained by the people who work there having entirely forgotten that the people they are dealing with are people.

It’s an important point because the ‘people’ in people powered services are not just the service users as Russell would term them but also the service deliverers – or street bureaucrats who we want to co-produce services with the people who use them.

Davies also makes a point about mammals but I believe that is an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum argument rather than promotion of the digital animal rights agenda.

Two of the key themes to emerge from the Review are Digital Inclusion – no-one left behind and citizen empowerment – digital services co-produced between people and front line civil servants.

As Ed Miliband said recently: “The challenges facing public services are just too complex to deliver in an old-fashioned, top down way without the active engagement of the patient, the pupil or the parent: from mental health, to autism, to care for the elderly, to giving kids the best start in the early years.”

So basically we can’t afford passive service users any more, they have to be part of the service solution.

Czerniawski is more enthusiastic for customer, because he sees that as encouraging the public sector to imitate the private sector’s focus on customers and particularly their ability to take their custom elsewhere. Even if they can’t – there is only one way to get a pothole mended in your street after all –public sector officials should act as if they could.

My problem with this is it represents the public sector as a wannabe private sector, placing no value on the unique attributes of the public sector, and particularly the public service ethos which at times seems in danger of being tickboxed away.

There is also something cruel about forcing digitally excluded benefits claimants to jobsearch online or be sanctioned, then calling them customers!

As a recent post on the Facebook research experiment noted: “Perhaps we need to stop using the term ‘users‘ just as psychologists stopped using the word ‘subjects‘. Language drives attitudes, and viewing people as ‘big data’ leads to a mindset that is dangerously abstracted from the human consequences of action, or inaction.”

And this was in relation to the private sector.

The public sector has a unique role in delivering what the private sector cannot. And the public sector has a duty of care to the people which the private sector has not. And the public sector is paid for and owned by the people which the private sector is not.

As Michael Sandel has shown, there are some things which money cannot buy and being a person is one of them. We want people to use, create, consume, customise, play with, share, improve, inspire, own... digital services.

It should be up to people to decide what role they want to play.

Ultimately then I think I’m with the leader of my party and the American founding fathers.

Let the people decide.

Chi Onwurah is Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister and MP for Newcastle Central

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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