Citizens, not customers

Dear Readers,

The idea of citizenship has its roots in civis Romanum of the Roman Empire. A modern citizen endowed with civil rights and actively participating in res publica emerged during the era of the Enlightenment. Having drawn on the ancient notion of citizenship, America’s Founding Fathers held no illusions about the idealist nature of a citizen. “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” In The Federalist Papers, they expressed the idea that “each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection” while their rights shall be guarded against “encroachments from the government.” This reflects the idea pronounced by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—that all citizens should “[be] equal in the eyes of the law” and “[have] the right of contributing to its formation.”

The logic would be reversed, and the ethos of citizenship undermined if the government would be merely perceived as a service provider. Citizens are seen more as customers entitled to the highest quality of services provided by the public sector. Contrary to popular political pledges to maintain government small and limit red tape and rubber stamps, the number of interactions between citizens and government agencies has been steadily growing in modern society. This is reflected in the increasing demand for high-quality services provided by public-sector agencies and could lead to the simplified conclusion that the government relationship can be seen as a service provider for a customer. Governments are often advised to optimize their procedures when dealing with citizens by using methods common in retail sales. Government agencies should have a customer-friendly interface by using private sector practices in providing public services to “customer satisfaction.”

In recent decades, the concept of “entrepreneurial government” has been actively promoted. This could amount to a paradigm shift in a broader sense. This approach has been defended as a solution to reinventing the modus operandi of traditionally hierarchical government structures. Being entrepreneurial in government might be justified if it would mean more understanding of the principles of the market economy but not necessarily accommodating government decision-making procedures in a technocratic corporate culture.

The entrepreneurial shift seems to be more controversial if applied by governments to dealing with citizens’ data. In this issue, we have the pleasure of reprinting an article by Gianni Riotta on the power of data in the hands of authoritative regimes from our sister-journal Aspenia published by Aspen Institute Italy.

New technologies allow for the use of government marketing and communications “specifically tailored to audience interests” while using segmentation methods common in advertising. After digitization of government-citizen interaction, there is a growing temptation to stop treating citizens primarily as citizens, but to only see them as customers who expect a certain level of service. And the government is simply obliged to deliver services. As citizens, we should not grow accustomed to being treated merely as customers. Or should we?

Jiří Schneider

Jiří Schneider entered public life after democratic changes in 1989 when he was elected to the Czechoslovak Parliament (Federal Assembly) in 1990 and 1992. In 1993 he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and held various positions at the Czech diplomatic service. Most prominently he served as Ambassador to Israel (1995-1998) and First Deputy Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic (2010-2014).


Jiří Schneider graduated at The Czech Technical University (ČVUT) and obtained a Diploma in Religious Studies from University of Cambridge. From 2000 to 2009 he lectured on security studies, international relations, public policy, and the role of think tanks in Central Europe at Charles University in Prague, Masaryk University in Brno, and New York University in Prague. During the International Policy Fellowship at the Central European University in Budapest he published on Think Tanks in Visegrad Countries (2003) and Lobbying and Interest Representation (2007). He was closely associated with the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI), a leading Czech security think tank, as a Program Director (2005-2010) and most recently as a Senior Fellow and Director of Special Projects (2014-2015).


Jiří’s engagement with Aspen dates back to the early 90ʼs when he was a fellow of Aspen Institute Germany. More recently he supported the establishment of Aspen Institute Prague and served as a member of its Supervisory Board from 2011 to 2014.

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