Citizens or customers?

Last month Ingrid Koehler (re)started an interesing discussion on whether citizens should be considered customers.  While the debate isn’t necessarily new (see, for example, these notes from 1997), the topic is just as relevant today with a majority of the U.S. population voting for change but with the nation in a difficult financial situation.  In the comment of the original post, Kari Manovitch suggests that one size doesn’t fit all and that community, customer or citizen are all appropriate terms, depending on what you are trying to accomplish.  To that list, Mineapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak might add the word partner.  It’s probably no surprise that I like the notion that the outcome should dictate the terminology. 

The customer vs. citizen debate has an influence on how you design a strategy map in the Balanced Scorecard methodology.  In the traditional depiction, the four perspectives are stacked on top of each other with learning & growth at the bottom and financial at the top.  However, financial objectives aren’t the primary outcomes for public sector organizations; in fact, many people claim that finances (i.e. budget) are the primary input to the organization’s strategy.  This thinking is reflected in the Fulton County School System Strategy Map which has financial performance at the base and customer/stakeholder at the top.

Fulton County might be a Balanced Scorecard Hall of Fame award winner but I’m not sure I agree with putting the financial perspective at the bottom nor with grouping customer and citizen into one perspective.   Apparently, I’m not the only one.  The Economic Development Agency of the US Dept. of Commerce decided to create two distinct perspectives: customers and stakeholders.  From their point of view, customers include the community, investment partners, and others in the private sector.  The stakeholders are those that they are accountable to: taxpayers, the White House, and Congress.

While I prefer the second representation, I should remember my own mantra that one size doesn’t fit all and recognize that there are valid reasons for other representations.  In my classes on the Balanced Scorecard methodology, I address this issue by using the following generic diagram:

BSC Public Sector

Rather than placing one specific perspective on top, I emphasize the relationship between the perspectives.  For many of the agencies that I’ve worked with, it’s a good compromise.

One Response to Citizens or customers?

  1. Robert E says:

    You do bring up a very good point about not using words to limit how you look at stakeholders in the public sector. Whether you call the perspective customers, citizens, partners, or stakeholders, the public sector has to consider all of those aspects when defining and dealing with those external groups.
    The perspective name may change its name as it’s cascaded through the organization to make sure that the people who collect the garbage know it’s Customers, while the executive level keeps the Stakeholders happy.

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