Battle in Print: The Public Service Customer: Misdirection, Manipulation or Myth?

Nicki Senior, 25 October 2007

MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chain stores. Such a perversion of a pivotal text appears glib, but this is not the intent.  I invite readers to comprehend its meaning in the context that its original author, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, intended. The consumer is king, or so we have been led to believe. Yet Rousseau’s insight encompasses the uneasy relationship that exists between the perceived power of the citizen through consumer participation and the reality of exploitation masked by illusions of choice.

With the subtlety of a politician in a maternity unit the promotion of personal freedom through market participation became the driving force behind the Thatcherite campaign. But for all the criticism levelled at what the Conservatives idealised what many failed to appreciate and admire was its transparency. It made no attempt to hide its carnal coupling with capitalist ideals and the soliciting of commodity fetishism to the masses. Property equalled power; the worth of the individual was measured by their choice of VHS or Betamax. But, unwittingly, this emphasis on consumer power and choice appeared to backfire when, amid revelations of sleaze and bitter in party fighting, the consumer public chose a different leader.

In reality the 1997 election wasn’t so much won by Labour as lost by the Conservatives; but why split hairs? Lost or won one way or another New Labour was in the driving seat led by the young reformer Tony Blair. Their manifesto had declared the rejection of Smith’s ‘invisible hand’; upholding the failures of laissez faire economic policy as surely as if parading Thatcher and Smith in a twisted Skimmington (Footnote 1) around the benches of Westminster. However, all was not as it seemed. If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery then it would appear that Blair and Co. were more impressed by Conservative right policies than their public face implied. Letting their actions negate their words ‘New’ Labour’s inaugural economic bequests consisted of a minimum wage, set low to appease restless employers; extended powers to a nervous Bank of England as a trust building measure and, most controversially, university fee’s that ended the post-war legacy of free education. So much for the rejection of Neo-Liberal economics.

And this was only the beginning. In Blair’s utopia the ‘consumer king’ not only retained his throne, he went to war and overthrew the previously unassailable bastion of the public sector. Clarke et al. (2007) recall Labours assertion that the public services needed to ‘match the experiences and expectations of a consumer society’ and the consumerist approach was heralded as the best way of ensuring a more accountable, responsive and user-orientated service (p.121). Slowly the terminology of the public sector began to mutate. Picking up the baton from Major’s 1991’Citizens Charter’ terms that implied some sense of collectivity and complicity,  the patient, the claimant and the member of the public seeped away to be replaced by, firstly, the ‘citizen’ and ultimately ‘the customer’.

And so the new identity was introduced and with it inferences of a far more implicit notion of individualism as well as a more reciprocal relationship based on informed choice, very much akin to consumerist behaviour from the high street. Tony Blair made clear that this link with consumerist principles in the private sector was both desirable and intentional. In his forward to ‘Reforming our Public Services: Principles into Practice’ (OPSR, 2002) he stated that ‘consumers of public services should increasingly be given the kind of options that they take for granted in other walks of life’ (ibid, p3). In New Labour discourse the figure of consumer (and/or customer) was central more so, Clarke insisted, than any other label attached to individuals (Clarke, 2004, p10).

Unfortunately, New Labour invested so much in looking to the future that they failed to take warning from the past. The extent to which the true customer could actually exist in the public services had been debated long before New Labour baptised the customer into the public sector. Stewart and Clark argued that:

The customer of a public service is not the same as a customer of a service in the market. The customer does not necessarily buy the service; the customer may have a right to receive the service; customers may be refused a service because their needs may not meet the criteria laid down (in Sanderson, 1992)

Later, Clarke and Newman (1997, p.113) echoed these concerns by declaring that there is a limit to the availability and choice actually accessible by members of the public and, indeed, how rarely those people can ‘exit’ the service if dissatisfied. Furthermore a decade later Clarke et al. (2007) found that there was more than superficial concern about the issue of the name to be used in encounters with the ‘public’ of the public services. They discovered that many agencies acknowledged that the complex relationships with the public that they encountered meant that they were unable to be classified generically (Clarke et al. 2007, p.127). This was especially the case in sectors where the service user may not be engaging with the service on a voluntary basis, but being subject to compulsory attendance, such as with the police or mental health service. Notwithstanding, one could argue that consumers in the high street are increasingly experiencing pressure from monopolistic giants who are threatening to hold customers captive by destroying small business opposition and therefore forcing the consumer into involuntary participation in an ever decreasing market. It would seem that a ‘little’ of Blair’s vision of similarities in public and private consumer relations stands up here and of course ‘every little helps’.

And this discontent with terms has not remained with the academics and agencies. Clarke et al. (2007) reveals interesting insights into the way the public view themselves as users of public services and how this view contrasts with the way government literature portrays them. Despite the drive by the government to promote users of the public services as consumers or customers the public themselves fail to identify with these terms (ibid, p.128). The conclusion to this is that terms promoted by the government are not being seen as important by the general public (ibid). Despite such a revelation this report did not explore the reasons why the public do not place themselves in the context of ‘customer’. Kaufman (2003) proposed that in order to adopt an identity individuals need to actively construct that identity through their actions. Therefore if an individual is unable to demonstrate their identity in appropriate actions; if as a customer they cannot exercise choice, voice and exit if dissatisfied, as is the case in many of the public services, then can they adopt that identity at all? If this is so then it would appear that the general public find it easier to exercise choice over their identity rather than admit to their lack of choice as ‘customers’ of the public services.

Be this as it may, one is left to wonder how much of the political hype surrounding the recasting of the public as customers of public services is nothing more than a smokescreen for alternative actions. This was the charge levelled at Major’s radical charter, that it was little more than an opportunity to implement a mass audit of public services (Richards, 2002, p.110-111). If this is so what is it that Labour wants to disguise with this (mis)direction? Is it an attempt to blame the failings of the public service on the poor choices of the ‘customer’, a chance to proclaim that the public ‘only have themselves to blame’? Or is it a brilliant demonstration of reverse psychology built upon constructed interactions that deny individuals the opportunity to exercise their consumer identity to such a point that they convince themselves that they don’t even want to be customers and, in doing so, reinforcing and actively upholding the docile, passive identities associated with traditional public service administration?

Whether these claims are true or not what the public need to decide is not what identity they want to adopt but what are the motivations of the government in promoting one particular identity over another?  Only when these motivations have been laid bare can the public truly assimilate a label that reflects the realistic level of choice available to users of the public services. As this paper opened, with the words of a philosopher, so shall it end. Derrida’s (1995) lament was for his own identity but I present it here as a warning to any who engage with the public services: “Each time this identity announces itself, someone or something cries: Look out for the trap, you’re caught. Take off, get free, disengage yourself.” (pp.339-343).



Nicki Senior is a postgraduate research student at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.


1. According to Grose (1811) skimmington riding was a ludicrous cavalcade, in ridicule of a man beaten by his wife. It consists of a man riding behind a woman, with his face to the horse’s tail, holding a distaff in his hand, at which he seems to work, the woman all the while beating him with a ladle; a smock displayed on a staff is carried before them as an emblematical standard, denoting female superiority: In a glossary of Wiltshire words (Dartnell and Goddard) maintain skimmington’s were also invoked to express disapproval in cases of great scandal and immorality (in Cunnington, 1930, p.287).


Clarke, J. (2004) Creating Citizen-Consumers: the trajectory of an identity. CASCA annual conference. London, Ontario.

Clarke, J. and Newman, J. (1997) The Managerial State, London, Sage.

Clarke, J., Newman, J., Vidler, E. and Westmarland, L. (2007) Creating Citizen-Consumers: Changing Publics and Changing Public Services, London, Sage.

Cunnington, B. H. (1930) “A Skimmington” in 1618, Folklore, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 287-290.

Derrida, J. (1995) Points…: Interviews, 1974-1994, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press. Available at: Accessed 24/09/07.

Grose, F. (1811) The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, C. Chappel, Pall-Mall.

Kaufman, P. (2003) ‘Learning to Not Labor: How Working Class Individuals Construct Middle-Class Identities’, The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 44; Issue 3, pp. 481-504.

OPSR (2002) Reforming our Public Services: Principles into Practice, London, OPSR.

Richards, D. and Smith, M.J. (2002) Governance and Public Policy in the United Kingdom, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Sanderson, I. (1992) Management of Quality in Local Government, Harlow, Longman.

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