Citizens Are Not ‘Customers’ Of The State


At your service: Minister for Employment Affairs & Social Protection Regina Doherty and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

The people of Ireland should know that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party have removed the status of citizenship from them and replaced it with the inferior status of ‘customer’.

The process was initiated in 1997 and has been refined and expanded upon ever since. Ministers and civil servants no longer address citizens as citizens but as customers.

For example, during a recent interview on RTÉ Radio 1’s ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty referred to old age pensioners as ‘customers’.

Thinking that this may have been a ministerial slip of the tongue I had a look at Ms. Doherty’s department website and found that the status of citizenship had indeed been removed and substituted with the lesser title of ‘customer’

A quick search across other departments confirmed that this is official policy. Here for example is an extract from the Department of the Taoiseach:

Our Commitment to our Customers

The Department of the Taoiseach is committed to providing a professional, efficient and courteous service to all our customers…We will treat all our customers equally and make every effort to ensure that the services we provide reflect your needs and expectations.

This is a deeply disturbing development as it strikes at the very core of the democratic relationship between citizen and state.

It strongly implies that ministers and state officials have taken ownership of the power, wealth and resources of the state. That they, and not the citizenry are – The State.

It implies that [now former] citizens are mere ‘customers’ that must comply with laid down conditions if they wish to ‘do business’ with the new owners of the state.

This quote, taken from the Dept. of Public Expenditure and Reform, makes it crystal clear that it is the department that is the provider of goods and services and the citizen is the customer:

Deliver quality services with courtesy, sensitivity and the minimum delay, fostering a climate of mutual respect between provider and customer.

The development further implies that ministers and civil servants no longer see themselves as (civil/public) servants, elected and employed to serve people and country but rather as wielders of state power over and superior to the power of the people.

I spoke about the issue with a senior official in the Dept. of the Taoiseach who was genuinely surprised that I thought the matter was of any importance.

Here’s why I believe the issue is of crucial importance:

Democracy literally means ‘rule by the people’. Not by politicians or civil servants but by the citizenry. In representative democracies certain elected citizens are temporarily appointed to govern on behalf of the people.

They are granted state power by the people to govern on behalf of the people but the possession of that power does not raise their status above that of any other citizen.

It does not create a relationship whereby the politician is master and the citizen is a customer.

Similarly, many citizens are employed to serve the State on behalf of the people across a wide range of government departments but no individual civil servant possesses a status or a power above that of any other citizen, they remain servants to the democracy of the people.

This policy of downgrading the sacrosanct status of citizenship by replacing it with the inferior and cheap status of ‘customer’ is obnoxious to the very meaning of democracy.

Customer means:

A person who buys goods or services from a shop or business.

In the world of trade this is a perfectly legitimate definition. An individual becomes a customer when they decide to purchase goods or services from the owner of a business.

In a functional democracy citizens do not purchase goods or services from politicians or state officials operating under the illusion that they own these goods and services.

Citizens avail of goods and services that they (the citizens) have provided for the greater good of all the people.

It is the function of politicians and officials to serve the people by organising and dispensing these goods and services according to need.

They do so as fellow and equal citizens, not as overseers doing business with customers.

Citizenship means:

A person recognised under the custom or law as being a legal member of a sovereign state or belonging to a nation.

It’s unlikely that this removal of the status of citizenship is a deliberate conspiracy to weaken democracy but that is exactly what it will do. Once a concept is accepted by an authority it quickly becomes the norm.

That’s why the official I spoke to at the Dept. of the Taoiseach was so puzzled by my concerns.

She has already accepted those who deal with her department are not citizens but customers and therefore should be dealt with as such.

Similarly with Minister Doherty. She obviously feels totally at ease in referring to citizens as customers. But by so doing she is over-turning the centuries long democratic principle that politicians and state officials are servants to the people and not, as the term ‘customer’ suggests, masters over the citizenry.

But even more crucially the Minister has lost sight of the most important democratic principle of all – that citizens ARE the state and therefore can never be customers to it.

Citizenship Status Has Been Removed From The irish People (Anthony Sheridan, Public Enquiry)

Leah Farrell/Rollingnews

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55 thoughts on “Citizens Are Not ‘Customers’ Of The State

  1. Anthony Finucane

    I don’t think it’s about removal of the concept of citizen but more that it’s a sign of businesses and governments moving towards more corporate, marketing-like language to describe people in a more fluffy and friendly manner. For example, patients are no longer patients in some places, they’re “clients” or “service users.”

    The concept of someone being a customer implies that the organisation might care about the more or has a duty to care about them more than just “citizen” which might seem cold or unfriendly.

    1. george

      The idea that some see the status of “customer” as higher than “citizen” is a sad reflection of our time. The public should be referred to as “the public” because not everyone who lives in Ireland is a citizen.

          1. baz

            which polar are you in now Anthony?

            I just explained to you the why and now you’re telling me.

            Interesting move.

      1. Cian

        George, “the public” would work – but it’s a bit cold and impersonal.

        The Department of the Taoiseach is committed to providing a professional, efficient and courteous service to the public…We will treat all members of the public equally and make every effort to ensure that the services we provide reflect your needs and expectations.

        1. Rob_G

          If all the govt websites used ‘citizen’ the whole time, it would be like something out of Judge Dredd.

    2. Cian

      In healthcare “service user” is the generic term that covers all users that are receiving any service. All patients are service users, but not all service users are patients.

      Someone in a hospital-bed could correctly be referred to as a patient, but would you call an pensioner living in a State Care a “patient”? Would you refer to a new-mother getting a visit from a Public Heath Nurse a “patient”? If you go in to give a blood sample are you a “patient”?

      1. Anthony Finucane

        Yeah, suppose it doesn’t make sense to refer to everyone as a patient. I was only thinking about someone in a hospital – didn’t think of other healthcare areas.

  2. R

    I think this is common in governments, it certainly is in the UK – it’s probably a trend in civil servant speak, prob not as big a deal as this article makes it though still wrong.

    I would say the idea is to act like ‘we care so much about delivering services to people it’s as if we’re a business!’ when in reality this just highlights how perverse a view of their role civil servants have and how obscure the idea that they work for the public often is to them.

    A customer has a choice of who they do business with, a citizen does not. So there’s a deeper onus on the state.

    But it’s not all bad if government is at least thinking of commitments and promises to the people who pay its wages – you might think that’s a given, but you’d be wrong.

  3. Jonsmoke

    It is straight out of corporate world. In my job, there is constant reference to customers even though we only deal with internal departments. It’s just a way of making you think more about the quality of service you provide.
    Using the retail customer definition and example in the article is wrong.
    Mount out of a mole hill I think.

    1. Rudy

      We call our internal users “customers” too (in fact, I am the Customer Relations Manager – ITS for a medical college). However, there is a big difference between a service provider (such as internal ITS or even a hospital) referring to their users as customers (or even clients) and an entire Government doing the same. IMHO, of course.

    2. george

      People should see the state’s relationship with the public as more important than a persons relationship with a supermarket.

      1. Giggidygoo

        the other chap? Are you suffering from FFG tunnel vision? There are many choices to vote for.

        1. Rob_G

          Indeed you are right – vote for whichever combination of candidates you like the most/think are unlikely to unseat FG.

    1. CoderNerd

      Ever notice how the first they hear of most things is from the Prime Time television series?

  4. Murtles

    And since there has been such furore with Public Services Cards, it is now intended to attach a unique identifier number and logo to our customers on the forearms……*cough scannable too…..

  5. Cian

    The problem with the word ‘citizen’ is that is racist.
    If the State only deals with citizens, what about the Poles, British, Lithuanians, Romanians, etc that are also eligible for these services?

    Any other options?

    1. Yeah

      Citizen and member of the public, if you’re not a citizen you shouldn’t be referred to as one. And customer is pure boo boo

      1. Cian

        What if you are neither citizen nor member of the public?

        If someone in, say, Google (an American) contacted Department of the Taoiseach in a work-related matter. As a representative as a company she is neither (Irish) citizen, non a member of the public.

  6. Rob_G

    ‘Blog post by crank claims that people’s citizenship rights are being usurped by the ‘About’ blurb on govt dept’s websites’ – fixed your title for you there, Bodge.

  7. Joe Small

    Justice and Social Protection in particular deal with a lot of non-citizens. ‘Customers’ is just a useful catch-all phrase for people engaging with state services.

    There may be a hint of neo-liberalism there too but a lot of it is an effort to copy best practices from the private sector to try to do a better job.

  8. Optimus Grime

    If you look at Doherty there in that picture in isolation it’s like something from a horror film…

  9. Cian

    Anthony Sheridan can also look at the entomology of customer:
    the origin of the word customer is the Latin – consuetudinem, coming from one’s habit or custom – or, someone’s customary practice do something repeatedly.

    There doesn’t have to be a monitory element to being a customer.

    1. Rob_G

      ‘… entomology of customer’

      – bad enough when they were calling us customers; now they are calling us bugs?!?

  10. TheQ47

    As the post itself says, this is not a new thing, since 1997 at least – that’s 21 years.

    I don’t see it as eroding the rights of citizens, just more inclusive, as many of the people who interact with Government Departments are not citizens of this state at all. The term “customers” includes citizens and non-citizens alike.

  11. The Ferg

    Not all people who use public\civil services are citizens.
    //Full disclosure: I’m part of the FF/FG/Labour conspiracy to enslave you all – WuuUUuuHAHAHAHAHA…..

  12. dav

    It’s typical of the laissez faire attitude that this government has to governing the nation. Outsource our health services, have scum like Carrillion build our schools and let vulture funds solve our housing crisis. Pity the Nation..

  13. Liam Deliverance

    I find this troubling, language is important, I would think of being a citizen as being a stakeholder, that the nation belong to the citizens, especially in our so called Republic. All the wealth of the nation is derived from the citizens and their tax.

    Citizenship means:
    A person recognised under the custom or law as being a legal member of a sovereign state or belonging to a nation.

    the state of being a member of a particular country and having rights because of it:

    the state of living in a particular area or town and behaving in a way that other people who live there expect of you

  14. Daisy Chainsaw

    civil servants no longer see themselves as (civil/public) servants, elected and employed to serve people and country but rather as wielders of state power over and superior to the power of the people.”
    Aw ffs!! There aren’t enough eyerolling smilies in the world for that.

    There’s no big conspiracy to dehumanise. We civil servants are “customers” of some departments too and the phrase was brought in to remind us that we are paid to provide a service to the people we deal with face to face and on othe phone. None of us want those stupid Public Services Card either.

    1. Cian

      Daisy, did you not get the 2008.4 memo from Dept of Taoiseach? There is a process to identify yourself as a fellow civil/public servant across the sector – and to skip the queue of plebs. There is a website (only available on the government VPN) to access the various ‘internal’ forms, phone numbers, etc see

      1. Daisy Chainsaw

        Never saw that website before and when I clicked on the link it told me it was unsafe, and never heard of that memo either. Identifying as a civil servant hasn’t skipped me up any queue… passport, surgery etc. Sounds like the same kind of myth as bank time (abolished years and years ago) and unlimited sick leave (7 days uncertified over 2 years).

        No secret handshakes/gang signs going on.

  15. Barry

    One word that seems to me to be missing in this discussion, and that is “rights” Whatever we are referred to as, we have rights. The concept of customer is designed to make our relationship with the state sound like we are welcomed. In fact access to state services is our right.

  16. Philip Christie

    A Government has a sacred duty to the people it serves. In essence it holds the duty of parent or guardian. When this duty and honour to hold office is diminished, it allows all sorts of injustice and this is why our politicians are rightly losing the respect of the people. They do not tell the truth even as they know it and force citizens that they have mistreated and harmed to go to the courts to seek redress. The religious authorities were no better. They are not held responsible when scandals (like the Blood Transfusion Service, the Cervical Smear fiasco, the water charges fiasco, the banking scandal and the rest) happen. A dutiful and honourable person, never mind parent would never either abuse or allow others to abuse their children. Please look at the level of abuse that has gone on in the areas of authority and stop lying to yourselves that these words don’t matter. Why are women dying of cancer enduring the court cases that our leader promised would not happen? We are a deeply dysfunctional state and society. If we want to change, this is where we must start, – WITH THE TRUTH!!

  17. Mike O Donovan

    You honestly think it’s something as benign as corporate speak???? I honestly can’t believe you are really that naive. Everything they are doing is set up to sell off our national assets to their corporate buddies. Irish water, bus eireann, they are being lined up to be sold off for pennies on the pound, once they have the unions broken, and the water bills are being paid. Let’s get one thing very straight, the politicians of this country only care about what they can get for themselves, and what they can sell off to their buddies, to Gaurentee a nice cushy corporate job when they’ve cleaned us out for all they can take

  18. Mary Collins

    Irish people with a right to vote are citizens of the state. TDs ministers and all elected officers are purchasers. It is they come knocking at doors begging for votes. Promises are used as bargaining power which in turn is treated as cash.As for Regina ODoherty, she is a cold fish. She has eyes like a cat ready to pounce

  19. Ian Hester

    Let the buyer beware,everything is heading for privatisation,they’ll sell their mothers next….

  20. Julie Graham

    The word citizen should be used. An entire nation’s citizen’s identities should not be changed for others sh are in our country awaiting status. As soon as others become citizens they will be included. We are certainly not customers.

  21. Catherine Lynch

    Irish water employed the same tactic… And it was a deliberate one. PowerPoint presentations were used to plot their changing of the word citizen to customer, and therefore set up the notion that water is a commodity to be sold to paying customers.

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