Citizen Engagement Digital Policy United States

What’s in a name?

Watching Jon Alexander’s recent interview on Citizen2015 brought to mind an epiphany moment I had a couple of years ago at a conference for government, military and private-sector organizations that provide logistics services to the military.

It came during a presentation about the massive disaster relief operation the US military conducted following hurricane Katrina given by Army General Russel L. Honoré, commander of the operation. He was talking about the critical importance that logistics play in any military operation and how a small logistical failure can doom an entire mission. He then turned around and, gazing directly at the audience, pointedly said – and I’m paraphrasing here: “You need to think of us not as customers but as patients – patients who, without your care, without your lifelines, would die.” It struck me how, just by using a different word, one’s perspective of something can change so dramatically. To me, “patient” connotes urgency, constancy, commitment, uncompromising quality and compassion – not words one would normally associate with “customer” or “end-user.”

In the United States, it is common practice for government personnel to refer to the public they serve as “taxpayers.”  This characterization is interesting in that it connotes respect – a recognition that the operation of the government is funded by its citizens. Yet, to Jon Alexander’s point, it has little to do with the notion of citizens participating in the government. If anything, it has the opposite connotation – an arm’s length relationship.

The challenge is how to change the government’s view of the public from taxpayers or consumers to citizens – or partners. It’s far more than a name change; it’s a cultural change that needs to come about across our government organizations and leaders. Some would argue that we are talking about a sea change in culture.

Here in United States, particularly at the Federal government level, the concept of the citizen as a consumer of services, by and large, appears to remain well entrenched. Historically, the majority of Federal eGovernment investments have been for the provision of services to the “taxpayer.” Another area of significant investment has been in open government and transparency – which has been largely driven by President Obama and grassroots movements like the Sunshine Foundation.

It is at the state and local government levels where we are starting to see the transformation of the citizen from consumer to participant. One example: Maryland’s Montgomery County’s engageMontgomery – a crowd-sourcing platform that serves as a virtual town hall where citizens can submit and discuss ideas that can potentially be implemented in the future.

Initiatives such as this, small as they are today, are key: Not only do they deliver value but they also raise citizens’ expectations– which, in turn, become the catalysts of change. Or as law professor Michael Tigar once said: “All revolutions are impossible until they happen, then they become inevitable.”

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