Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Citizens and consumers

The Australian Communications and Media Authority introduced a new structure in December. Key features of the restructure were the alignment of the structure to the key challenges in the sector including digital broadcasting transition and NBN issues.

The stand-out feature though was the formation of the Content, Consumer and Citizen Division. This is the first sign of a "post neoliberal" view of governance responsibility that issues in regulation extend beyond just the consumer.

I recall engaging with either the old DCITA or the old ACA on one of their proposed "customer service" charters and indicating that the word "customer" was inappropriate for a non-commercial relationship. I proposed instead a view that there are "four Cs'" of relevance - and that these divide across a two-by-two matrix of whether the relationship is commercial or not, and whether the relationship was actual or potential. This gives the following four terms;

Consumer - a person who may potentially enter into a commercial relationship to acquire goods or services.
Customer - a person who is currently entering into or considering a commercial relationship to acquire goods or services.
Citizen - a person who has rights and responsibilities under law.
Client - a person engaging with government or its agent (a regulator) in regard to their rights or responsibilities under law.

In these definitions a "person" could be an individual or one of the variety of "incorporated persons" recognised in law.

These distinctions are not entirely new. A UK site called "How to Complain" provides advice on
* your rights as a consumer, customer, client or patient [and]
* the history of and your current rights as a citizen

There are quite good papers that explain why treating citizens as customers in government interaction can make government agencies "citizen-centric", but I would argue the term "client" is more effective for that. While in general usage the distinction between "customer" and "client" may be about the distinction between goods and services, a more specific distinction is that the term "client" is used for interactions where the provider is offering a "professional service". In this usage "professional" does not mean for money but instead means a person who is both expert and covered by some particular ethical code.

A way of making that distinction is that a customer is expected to be able to know enough about the transacton to protect themselves, whereas a client is completely reliant on the professional expertise of the provider. To that end customer is a better description of all commercial transactions and client the description of a citizen interacting with government.

Finally I stumbled on a very good paper on the need to continue a concept of citizen distinct from that of consumer. It ties neatly together with "market state" theory and what the paper calls "New Public Management" which is a term for the amalgam of the reforms of the 1980s and 190s. This is the shift of government from a provider of services to the provider of a framework within which services are provided. It includes corporatisation, privatisation and the kinds of "outsouced" delivery models such as the Job Network.
(That paper came from what looked like a fascinating conference in 2006)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting analytical construct.
One question:
where / how does the User /End-user (of LTIE fame) fit.

Perhaps it is the collective name for the population of the whole matrix?