We, the people

Let’s put this as neutrally as possible.

People interact with public services.

Now, here’s a simple question: what should we call those people – and why?

Perhaps it’s not such a simple question after all. They – we – are many things. We are patients, customers, passengers, swimmers, clients, taxpayers, claimants  and more (as well as, but slightly separately, being voters, citizens, residents).1

The question of what the collective noun should be for all of that, and of whether there should be one in the first place, never quite goes away. I don’t think it’s a particularly fruitful debate, and there never seems to be a way of avoiding going round the same circles, but I have just read a post by Russell Davies, which achieves two remarkable things.  The first is that he has something to say which takes the debate forward. The second is that just maybe something has changed in the real world which we should respond to.

Of all the possible words we could consider, I want to focus on just three, because that keeps the problem manageable and is enough to bring out the issues.  Those three are:

  • people
  • customers
  • users

What is the user need?


Let’s deal with ‘people’ first. Yes, of course we are. And precisely for that reason, it’s pretty meaningless in this context. Russell nails that one pithily and mercilessly:

Firstly, let’s remember that they’re also mammals – does that help? No. Moving up to the next biggest category isn’t especially useful.

Secondly, if you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems. Changing what you write on your briefs/stories isn’t going to help.


Then we get to ‘customers’, which is where it gets more interesting. Russell is pretty dismissive of that approach too:

At the centre of the ‘customer’ relationship is the need to win someone’s custom. That might seem like good discipline – we’ll import the competitive service ethos of the private sector! – sadly what you get instead is a set of corporate habits founded in sales and marketing rather than service; born of a time when the dominant corporate habit was persuasion, when taglines and image were more important than delivery.

There are two drawbacks with that argument. One is that in an important sense we often do need to persuade people to behave one way rather than another (even if that persuasion is not about capturing their custom in a commercial sense). The other is that behaving as if there were that need has some very positive effects on both the design and the delivery of public services.

That’s why I argued in a post I wrote six years ago that were several reasons why ‘customer’ might be a good word to use:

  1. because that’s what we are
  2. because that’s more what we are than any other word we have got
  3. because that’s what we are sometimes, and we want it to be more times
  4. because using the word improves the chances that we get treated well.

As I noted then, by that stage the debate had already been rumbling for at least ten years, prompted in part by Michael Bichard, the then newly appointed founding Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency, who insisted on referring to customers, not claimants. But the use of the word ‘customer’ in the context of public service delivery goes back much further than that - it was used in a completely matter of fact way by a writer in 1951, for example.

So it’s not that users of public services are customers in every sense of the word, but that it is a good idea to treat them as if they were. Designing a service as if the people using it could reject it and walk away forces a powerful and valuable discipline. To that extent, the point of talking about customers is as a way of framing questions for designers and providers of services. As a wise colleague of mine who went through the Bichard revolution put it in a comment on that post from 2008:

Who should really care what we call customers? Customers don’t. (And actually we don’t really call them that to their faces, as surely as we never said “dear claimant”). Customers care about the service we give them, not what we call them. And if calling customers customers means we give them a better service, then who but the customer should care?

When I first wrote about all this, that was reinforced by the fact that in an important – and often new – way, people were customers. Being a customer was and is about making a choice, not necessarily about making a purchase. We did, in Russell’s words, ‘need to win someone’s custom’, indeed that need was often why the question came up in the first place, because we wanted people to choose online services:

In many ways, the most interesting thing about services going online is that they create choice, often for the first time.  Not, of course, choice about everything and not necessarily about the whole experience, but choice where there has not been choice before.  If there is choice, we can exercise that choice, embracing or spurning the channels being offered to us. Since there are strong reasons for wanting people to exercise their choice in a particular direction, there is a necessity to make that alternative attractive and to market it effectively. The terms of trade are dramatically changed – and at that moment, we are customers in a strong sense of the word.

Paradoxically, the success of digital may mean that that is now changing. If we were in a fully ‘digital by default’ world, there would be less choice for most people to exercise in many circumstances than there is now. Of course, we haven’t got there yet, and as the government’s digital strategy recognises, persuasion and awareness are still vital:

To persuade people to use government digital services, we need to improve the quality of the services to make them clearly preferable to the alternatives.

We also need to make people aware of the services that are available. A number of techniques can be used to raise awareness and encourage people to use digital channels.

So at least for now, I think there continues to be some positive value in talking about customers.


What then of the third candidate, users? Russell is clear about that one too:

User is a good word because it clearly indicates what the relationship is all about. Our primary responsibility is to make something that someone can use. It’s about utility.

Users are everybody

I have got a lot of sympathy with that. I have no problem talking about users (or about usability). But from other perspectives, it’s a word which is seen as alienating and mechanistic. Some of that is just about other contexts in which the word is used – ‘Are you a user?’ can be a rather unfortunate question to ask. But more importantly, it is part of a broader concern about feeling dehumanised – there is a website dedicated to proclaiming that I am not a user; I don’t know of any similar campaign to disclaim being a customer or a person.

In another post I wrote at a point when it seemed that patients might be in danger of becoming users too, I quoted Don Norman:

If we are designing for people, why not call them that: people, a person, or perhaps humans. But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as customer, consumer, or user. Customer – you know, someone who pays the bills. Consumer – one who consumes. User, or even worse, end user – the person who pushes the buttons, clicks the mouse, and keeps getting confused. [...]

People are rich, complex beings. They use our devices with specific goals, motives, and agendas. Often they work with – or against – others. A label such as customer, consumer or user ignores this rich structure of abilities, motives, and social structures.

There is a bit of a paradox here. The people I know who tend to talk about users (and usability, user research, user experience and all the rest) are among those who care most passionately about getting behind mechanistic and dehumanising interactions and who best understand that people are indeed ‘rich, complex beings’ – the kind of attitude imbuing this post by Leisa Reichelt, for example. Criticising her for using ‘users’ seems to miss the point fairly spectacularly. But despite all that, it does abstract from the more specific and varied roles we play as humans. That’s what makes it possible (or appear to be possible) to have a single word, but it is also what makes that word risk being a little alienating.

We are many things

If we are at risk of condemning ourselves to an infinite loop, from people to customers, to users and  back to people, that strongly suggests that the question has gone wrong somewhere. As far as that goes, I am not sure I can improve on my conclusion from six years ago:

So where does all that get us?  Well, probably nowhere very much – which is precisely the point.  Using ‘customer’ isn’t the perfect solution, but its use has had powerful and largely positive consequences for public services and their users.  It isn’t the perfect solution because there isn’t one to be found, and the more time and energy spent looking for this unicorn, the less time and energy there will be for the basic job of making things work better.

But that doesn’t mean coming back to the question is a waste of time – and as I said at the beginning of this post, Russell is on to something important here. In some respects, the more successful the digital agenda proves to be both in providing online services and in encouraging people to use them, the less like customers we collectively become.

Much more importantly, I think Russell may have captured an important turning point. When Michael Bichard started talking about ‘customers’ of the benefit system in 1990 it was a revolutionary act. His aim was not to suggest that there was any new element of choice or consumer power which those people could exercise, it was to force his staff to think differently about the people to whom they were delivering services. A quarter of a century later, the best reason for no longer talking about customers  would be if that mind trick were no longer needed.

Update:  I wrote a very short post as an addendum to this, picking up an argument from Benjamin Ellis that talking about ‘users’ allows confusion of thought between big data and people and that in consequence, we should stop talking about users altogether. And don’t miss Mark Foden’s suggestion in the comments below that ‘human’ might be the answer.

Picture of users taken from Aviation House by Ben Terrett, licensed under creative commons

  1. And yes, separating those two lists is itself contentious, but that’s an argument for another time.

The people have forfeited the confidence of the government

However hard you try to represent people, the chances of their feeling well represented remain small. That’s not a reason to despair. It is a reason to remember that there is a gap between those who consult and those who are consulted, between those who provide and those who are provided for, which is likely to appear bigger to the latter than to the former. So it is more likely that you will think you have run an effective consultation than that those consulted will feel that they have been heard.

FireShot Screen Capture #060 - 'LGiU-Lambeth-residents-v2-Hi-res_pdf' - www_lgiu_org_uk_wp-content_uploads_2014_06_LGiU-Lambeth-residents-v2-Hi-resI have the modest good fortune to be a beneficiary of the Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme run by Lambeth Council last year. Thanks to Dave Briggs, I have discovered that the  LGIU has just published an evaluation of the programme under the confident title of People Shaped Places.1 They are pretty positive about it. I am in some ways too, but I think they have  a slightly rose tinted view.

For me, this is a fascinating but rare example of a programme where I have a very immediate interest – I can see one of the concrete results  just by looking out of my window – but an interest which is purely as a user. The result, sadly, has been to leave me feeling less empowered than LGIU think I should be.

This post unavoidably includes a lot of local minutiae which you won’t have the slightest interest in, unless you happen to be a close neighbour. But the detail is there to illustrate a much broader point which should interest all of us who care about democratic engagement and collaborative decision making.

There is no doubt that neighbourhoods have been enhanced as part of the programme, including the creation a few streets away of Van Gogh Walk, which has its own website and has won a stack of awards. That’s one of the two case studies in the evaluation report and is undoubtedly a real success. But as the report notes:

In many ways, the Van Gogh Walk is quite different to the NEP – operating on a larger budget, a smaller geographical scale and a longer time scale.

It's absolutely beautiful here - Van Gogh on Stockwell

Interestingly, and perhaps slightly unexpectedly, it is the time, rather than the scale or the money which got in the way of that success being replicated.2

Elsewhere, though there was less time and less money, there was still an admirable attempt at engagement and at identifying improvements. That seems to have worked pretty well in some areas. A few streets away in another direction, the scheme has provided planting areas on the street, and the local community is busy filling them up and looking after them.

Planted and maintained by your neighbours

That though seems to have depended on there being a neighbourhood group with a clear and consistent view of what it wanted – and for that to be within the scale and scope of the Council’s prior conception of the scheme.

My neighbourhood was messier than that. Not because there was less clarity about what was wanted but because what was wanted turned out not to fit with the pre-defined constraints of the scheme.

The dialogue went something like this:

Council: Tell us what you would like.

Residents: We want to stop speeding and rat running. And have better communal bins. And some other stuff. And a pony.

Council: That’s too difficult. How about we just send the traffic on a more circuitous route round more narrow residential streets in the hope that people will give up and go away. And there’s nothing we can do about the bins. Or the pony.

Original residents: Err, that sounds as though it might make things worse, not better.

Newly affected residents: Keep your traffic, we’re not having any of it.

Council: Sorry, we’re out of time. We have to spend the money quickly so we are going to put in some random chicanes and cross our fingers.

Or in the rather drier language of the evaluation report:

Residents tended to propose and prefer traditional area improvements to some of the more creative solutions. This is despite a wide number of best practice examples being available online and discussed through the Made in Lambeth event.

In other words, this attempt at empowering local citizens was let down because those citizens were remiss in not realising how little empowerment was on offer.

That’s partly because key parts of the problem are not under the control of Lambeth Council in the first place, which results in a structural inability to address the underlying issue.3

It’s also because it became clear that were some standard approaches that Lambeth was going to fall back on almost regardless of the problem:  if in doubt, put a patch of grass in the road.

And here indeed is our local patch of newly installed grass. It’s not clear whether it solves the old problem, but there is no doubt that it creates several new ones.

Traffic calming

  1. Part of the initial problem is cars racing to get through green at the traffic lights at the top of the picture. For that purpose, the grass patch is on the wrong side of the road, the cars most slowed down are the ones which have just turned the corner and aren’t going very fast anyway
  2. As can be seen from the road markings, the road is a designated cycle route. It used to be perfectly safe, but now cyclists coming from the top of the picture are forced across the road, endangered both by cars coming the other way and by cars coming from behind wanting to overtake. I haven’t seen any collisions, but I have seen a couple of alarming near misses.4
  3. Grass grows. And when it grows it needs cutting pretty regularly if it is not to look scruffy. Somebody has been cutting this one – perhaps a little enthusiastically – but some of its siblings in other streets are already starting to look a bit wild. If they are left like that, it won’t be long before they start to attract litter. And then they will be an eyesore and no doubt suggestions will be made that they be removed to make the streets look tidier. And so the wheel turns.

It may sound from all this that I think that the whole programme has been a failure. I don’t: good things have come of it and I was impressed at the desire of Lambeth staff to engage and to listen (though less so with their ability to reflect what they heard in concrete proposals). The lesson I take is that, even at this pretty trivial level, this stuff is hard. Getting it right is more difficult than you might think, even when you have allowed for it all being more difficult than you had thought. And hyperlocal can be very hyper indeed.5

So perhaps the real problem with the LGIU evaluation is less that it is over optimistic (though my experience suggests that it is) and more that it is premature. The effort put into engagement was high as were the expectations created as a result. But the real test is not the effectiveness of the engagement, but the extent to which people feel their environment has improved as a result. Good process is necessary for good results. But it is not on its own sufficient.

  1. It is not clear from the report whether it was commissioned by Lambeth, but it includes an introduction by the cabinet member responsible for the programme, which suggests that it may not be completely disinterested.
  2. More specifically, the problem was annuality. It seemed more important for money to be spent by the end of the financial year than for it to be spent well.
  3. And partly because Lambeth itself is fragmented: this was a transport-based initiative oversold as wider environmental improvement. In a small but telling detail, its own departments acted at cross purposes:

    The posters, for instance, had a powerful potential when coupled with the postcards to reinforce awareness of the NEP. However, contractors working for other departments were unhelpful in their actions. Despite contacting other departments and their contractors in advance, the message failed to get through to contract staff, actually working on the streets, who removed some of the posters from lampposts.

  4. The cyclists are mostly on their way from somewhere else to somewhere else, rather than being immediately local residents, so they weren’t given a voice in the first place.
  5. At one meeting, I was reminded of the spirit of co-operation captured by Dorothy L. Sayers in one of her Peter Wimsey novels, with traffic taking the place of flood water:

    ‘Dig up one thing and you got to dig up another.’
    ‘At that rate,’ objected Wimsey, ‘the Fens would still be all under water.’
    ‘Well, in a manner of speaking, so they would,’ admitted the sluice-keeper. ‘That’s very true, so they would. But none the more for that, they didn’t ought to come a-drowning of us now. It’s all right for him to talk about letting the floods out at the Old Bank Sluice. Where’s it all a-going to? It comes up, and it’s got to go somewhere, and it comes down and it’s got to go somewhere, ain’t it?’
    ‘At the moment I gather it drowns the Mere Wash and Frogglesham and all those places.’
    ‘Well, it’s their water, ain’t it?’ said the sluice-keeper. ‘They ain’t got no call to send it down here.’
    ‘Quite,’ said Wimsey, recognising the spirit that had hampered the Fen drainage for the last few hundred years, ‘but as you say yourself, it’s got to go somewhere.’

Interesting elsewhere – 13 June 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Sensible security | Cabinet Office technology
The answer isn’t to compromise security in order to meet the user needs. The answer is to think about security as part of the user needs, something that is integral to (and should be balanced against) every other facet of the service.

Five Whitehall lessons that Sir Humphrey never learnt – FT.com
The first thing I learnt was that there is no such thing as HM Government. Westminster is a ship without a bridge; there is no captain who can observe everything and steer a course. There are only the departments – 20 or so disparate organisations, peopled by stubbornly uncommunicative officials, each with its own direction of travel and prone to colliding with the others.

Everyone is doing strategy right now. – disambiguity
You are already doing strategy today. Don’t waste time trying to come up with the perfect strategy. Take time to understand the strategies that are in play today, make those as visible and addressable as you can, and start iterating.

The Internet With A Human Face – Beyond Tellerrand 2014 Conference Talk
I’ve come to believe that a lot of what’s wrong with the Internet has to do with memory. The Internet somehow contrives to remember too much and too little at the same time, and it maps poorly on our concepts of how memory should work.

Everything Is Broken — The Message — Medium
It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire.

Computers, and computing, are broken.

Everything is Distributed – O’Reilly Radar
There are no complex software systems without people. Any discussion of distributed systems and managing complexity ultimately must acknowledge the roles people play in the systems we design and run. Humans are an integral part of the complex systems we create, and we are largely responsible for both their variability and their resilience (or lack thereof).

Guest Post: Culture, context and ways of working | Government technology
To really get the benefits from our digital journey, it is not just about rethinking our customer interactions.  We need to re-think the whole organisation:  culture, context and ways of working are as important as the technology.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data [pdf]
Economists suffer from physics envy over their inability to neatly model human behavior. An informal, incomplete grammar of the English language runs over 1,700 pages. Perhaps when it comes to natural language processing and related fields, we’re doomed to complex theories that will never have the elegance of physics equations. But
if that’s so, we should stop acting as if our goal is to author extremely elegant theories, and instead embrace complexity and make use of the best ally we have: the unreasonable effectiveness of data

How to write a risk log in 6 easy steps | Freedom From Command And Control
Writing about risks is a powerful weapon. Risks can’t read so they won’t know what you said about them. A completed and signed off risk log is a credible deterrent. A draft or incomplete risk log is a major threat.

Don’t Force Google to ‘Forget’ – NYTimes.com
Data is data. Google and company have not internalized just how significant that first page of search results has become to someone whose name has been queried. What they place on that page may do more than anything else in the world to define a stranger in others’ estimations.