I notice a strong and persistent reluctance with Dutch civil servants to use the word citizen. Apparantly because the Dutch word ‘burger’ carries overtones of ‘kleinburgerlijk’, petty bourgeois, of bourgeoisie, and of the general disdain university students voice for ‘burgers’ (with ‘burger’ being bandied about as an insult amongst them, which gained national usage through the 1990’s Jiskefet satirical tv program). Many civil servants said to me they think the word citizen is ‘old fashioned’.
I find this not only an oddity, but also detrimental to public governance and potentially dangerous.
Not using the word citizen obscures how in the relationship to government citizens have basic human rights, specific constitutional rights, and some duties. A citizen has autonomy and a certain power vis-a-vis the government.
Not using the word citizen, easily obscures that power and those rights to civil servants.
I hear civil servants talk about
- ‘customers’, usually in the context of providing public service
- ‘clients’, often in the context of the social domain, reminiscent of how therapists talk
- ‘inhabitants’, usually a hand-wavy acknowledgement that other people are involved, but in an abstracted, passive or even statistical way,
- ‘users’, usually carried over from an IT related context
- or worst case ‘residents’ as if you’re institutionalised.
In all these cases it creates either a distance to people or implies power assymmetries. It makes it easier to dehumanise people. The consequence is the creation of policies about people, but not with those people, because people are never perceived to be on equal footing. Policy gets done over people’s heads, done to them. Participatory processes are then easily reduced to a ritual, a checkbox to mark, something that is a pain and a drag without which your policy process would be so much more efficient. Clients, users and inhabitants are never equal to those who determine policies, whereas citizens would have to be met eye to eye. Acknowledging people as citizens would require curiosity about their needs, motives and actual experiences when developing policy.
Every civil servant I’ve worked with cares about good governance and public service, and individually they wouldn’t treat people as passive objects on which their policies operate, but collectively in their work context they do abstract people out of the equation. And their own choice of words contributes to that, makes it more likely to happen, I think.
In conversations with our public sector clients I always talk about citizens with emphasis. I often also introduce myself as citizen (not as consultant e.g.).
In our projects we always emphasize the need for civil servants to go outside, to check their data and documents against the reality outside, and as often as possible create conversations with real people, with citizens.
With the drive towards ‘data driven’ work, this is ever more essential. Data must be presumed to always describe only a sliver of reality, and to always do so badly on top of that. There is always a check against reality necessary when you want to start relying on data in policy decisions. Visit the places and the people represented in the data, do you recognise them? Do you have a sufficiently nuanced, detailed and rich view on an issue before making a decision? Do people’s stories validate the data, is their meaning incorporated?
Acknowledging people as citizens is also essential to being able to see and use government data publication as a policy instrument, meant to provide agency to people in the context of societal issues and as equal partners in addressing these issues.
Hight time for the public sector to use the word citizen routinely and meaningfully again.