Citizens, Customers and Clients: Is it more than semantics?

John J Howard wrote:

It is convenient to distinguish clients from customers. It is the client who sets the agenda, 'pays the piper and calls the tune'.

If you are selling your house you engage what in this country we call a real estate agent. The agent's task is to attract as many potential customers as possible and extract the highest possible price in order to earn the highest possible commission (fee) from the client.

It follows that if you are trying to buy a house, the last person you would want to talk to would be a real estate agent - there would be a clear conflict of interest. The person you need is a broker who would have you as a client and who would for a fixed fee negotiate with a range of estate agents for the best house at the lowest price.

Is this a useful distinction?

I feel that in my job in a central government agency (State Premier's Department) my customers are chief executives of public service agencies.

My client is directly the Premier of the State and indirectly the voters and taxpayers. The stakeholders are everybody.

Faye Schmidt wrote:

I'd like to get in on this discussion of citizens vs customers in the public sector. Recently, I've been doing some work with the Canadian Citizen Centered Service Network (CCSN) which brings together senior public servants from all levels of gov't across Canada. This group started its work in July, 1997 and has focused on increasing our knowledge about service delivery and promoting greater inter-jurisdictional co-operation in service provision. The network has launched a number of research projects. The project that I lead for the CCSN involved the creation of a generic client satisfaction tool (the Common Measurements Tool or CMT) for the public sector.

In creating the CMT, we struggled with the definition of who it would be used with. This led us to a careful consideration of the difference between clients and citizens. We drew on work by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and made the following distinction: clients (either internal or external to the organization) are the direct recipients of services or products (the users) and citizens are the indirect or general beneficiaries (the stakeholders).

These groups clearly have different interests and needs. To focus only on one leads us to policy and service decisions that are not complete. The challenge for public employees is to understand and balance the needs of both citizens and clients.

It may help to give an example from the soon to be published "Client Satisfaction Surveying: Common Measurements Tool - An Operational Instrument for Public Sector Organizations" (in publication by the Canadian Centre for Management Development). "A citizen may not collect unemployment insurance and yet has an interest in how the system functions; the actual recipient of an unemployment insurance payment would be an external client. A regional employment insurance office that depends on a central agency to distribute the unemployment insurance payments to their office would be an internal client. Public employees serve numerous clients/citizens with conflicting interests simultaneously. For example, the front-line employee may assist an applicant as a client in accessing the required service. At the same time, the front-line public servant may be serving the citizen by ensuring that applicants being approved for a specific service meet all the eligibility criteria. The challenge is to balance value for money for citizens (taxpayers) with high quality, accessible service for clients."

To dismiss the concept of clients (or customers) from the discussion of models of public administration would, in my opinion, be a grave mistake. As public servants, we are in the service business. As the comments from Kuno below stress, we need to add clients to our thinking, not replace citizens with clients. It may be just semantics, but I wonder if Ali Farazmand would be more comfortable with the use of the word clients than customers as it moves the focus a little away from commerce and more toward the provision of professional services.

There is a large body of literature now on the application of Service Quality to the public sector and many examples of the great value this approach has. The above is just one piece of the discussion of the citizen-client issue. I hope it helps add to our thinking on emerging models of public administration.

Faye Schmidt, Ph.D.
Director, Organizational Support Division
Public Service Employee Relations Commission
Phone: (250) 356-5446
Fax: (250) 356-7074

Kuno Schedler wrote:

As a first answer I would like to stress that we are not REPLACING citizens with customers but rather we are ADDING the customer perspective to the citizen one. It must not be a discussion about either this or that, it should be about how we can combine the two perspectives into a new form of legitimization. Maybe we could work more on that.

Ali Farazmand wrote:

Thanks a lot for the newsletter and the comment about the NPM. In my view--and there are some support for it--NPM will not work for several reasons: ideological flaws, too much market loading which itself is full of corruption and cheating anomalies, human nature being used to and comfortable to traditions, stability of the bureaucratic order which is also required for market system or any system, and the many inconsistencies inherent in the NPM. Let's face it, it is primarily and ideologically market driven philosophy--if we ever want to call it a philosophy and it is not new. Corruption, exploitation, abuse, misuse, and its biasness in favor of the power-coporate elites are among some of the key flaws of the NPM.

Ths is not to suggesthat the bureaucratic system is good, not at all, but replacing one with another, especially corporate-driven ideology with massive downward trends for general people is something that is not to be igonored by people of knowledge and by those in INSTITUTIONAL structure and values. It is one thing to change orgainzational structure, policy, and technology, but changing people and their attitudes is another matter--a matter of fairness, consistency, justice, trust, and all those stuff we are familiar with in organzational rtheory and behavior--it is institutional in character, values, norms, and they can not be changed as we wish from top down or pretend from bottom up. Viewing citizens as costomers is wrong for many reasons, though your and others in the camps of O&G may be genuine with good intention. It reduces citizens to market-level costomers, exchangable and available as another commodoties. It is wrong, normatively immoral and practically obsured. Citizens own and have a stake in government and those who work in government; it is a given assumption that public officials must perform their duties and render their obligations as expected of them by citizens. This must be done in both qualitiative and respectful ways. In marketplace, you an I exchange commodities and whatever we can value by exchange instrument, e.g. dollar, frank, etc.

I would be gald to share more with you and hope you are not bothered by my perspectives.

Thanks for yor attention, but you are doing a wonderful job in the internet.

Ali Farazmand
Professor of Public Administartion
Florida Atalantic University

Reprinted from the mailing list of IPMN Newsletter Fall 1998. The IPMN Journal is found at:

- to get on the list, contact Kuno Schedler at inpuman-l @

Updated September 03, 1999

Last updated: May 28 2015