Can you recall your last great service experience? Maybe it was at a restaurant, a hotel, coffee shop, or a dry cleaner. Perhaps the clerk remembered your name or your preference. Or the service was particularly easy to use, available on your schedule at the push of a button. Or instead of being way over the top, maybe it just served its purpose simply without being overly complicated. In any case, the chances are your experience didn’t happen by accident. Rest assured that the service provider knows you have other alternatives and, in order to stay relevant, put considerable energy into understanding their customers’ needs and crafting their services to meet them. Furthermore, they are continually monitoring the customer experience and looking for ways to improve, lest be judged irrelevant and cast to the wayside. As customers, it may be transparent to us during the transaction but the service providers behind really great service experiences are working hard behind the scenes to bring it all together.
We believe that a similar model should apply to government services. Government is a service provider (we believe it is the world’s largest). Government has customers. These customers have a choice whether or not to transact with the government or seek out an alternative solution elsewhere. Customers may not exchange money at each transaction, but we do pay for government services. And yet, when people recall their best service experiences, examples in government hardly ever make the top of the list.
Service is a founding principle
The nature of government as a service business has its roots in the social contract that binds the governed and the governing and legitimizes government. While retracing the origins of the modern state beginning from the Magna Carta would be tedious, it is interesting to note that these concepts are hardwired into our democracy. We can look at the three men who together are the philosophical architects of modern Western government — Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They provide the notion of a social contract between the governed and their government.
- In Hobbes’s Leviathan, society occurs when fundamentally selfish individuals come together and cede some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs (elevating themselves from the nasty, brutish state of nature by, for example, John giving up his right to kill Chris if Chris does the same for John). A social contract exists when all individuals in a population beneath a sovereign authority cede some of their natural rights for the sake of protection.
- Locke’s conception of the social contract differed from Hobbes’s in a number of ways, importantly that it featured a separation of sovereign powers and the consent of the governed is a constant essential for legitimacy (Hobbes allowed for the occasional abuse of power by the sovereign). In the Second Treatise of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the social contract exists to provide civil society — a “neutral judge” that could therefore protect the lives, liberty, and property of those who lived within it. Locke’s social contract was particularly influential for the framers of the American Constitution.
- To Rousseau, the social contract derived its legitimacy from popular sovereignty, the direct rule by the people as a whole in law-making. In Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the law, inasmuch as it is voted by the people’s representatives, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but rather its expression; and enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction on individual liberty, as the individual, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will.
When we bring these schools of thought together, government is formed when citizens collectively agree to cede individual sovereignty to an individual or group (the sovereign) in exchange for the provision of a defined portfolio of services. In the United States, this portfolio of services is summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution as, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
While it may seem a little wonky at first, there are some grounding principles here that should matter when we conceive of the services that government provides. Ok, so what? Part 2 of this article describes how a shift in thinking towards a customer-driven strategy could improve the performance of government services.
This is part 1 of a 2-part article. If you enjoyed it, jump to Part 2 here.