News and Comment

The social impact of semantics

Thursday 14 February 2013

It was a comment from a former Newham parish priest that really captured my imagination during an IPPR event I attended this morning. One of the less likely contributors to a public policy debate perhaps – but then given that the event in question, the launch of IPPR’s Condition of Britain research, took place in the heart of Newham, at the office’s of Canning Town’s markedly impressive charity Community Links – it did seem appropriate.

The gentleman in question passionately objected to the tendency of public services, particularly transport, to refer to him as a ‘customer’, rather than a ‘citizen’. The point struck a chord with the panel, which included Jon Cruddas MP, who was in attendance to talk about the Labour party’s Policy Review that he is heading. “‘Citizens’” the former priest continued, “join together to deliver services. ‘Customers’ do not.”

This distinction neatly encapsulates how subtle and seemingly insignificant differences in language are in fact indicators of something much more important than simple semantics. ‘Customers’ are passive, mere recipients of a service which they pay for. ‘Citizens’ on the other hand are manifestly active; they have different expectations of how they should be treated, and crucially, what actions they should, or could, take.

The important role that apparantly innocuous language can play is something we’ve touched on before. My colleague Antonia Bunnin recently blogged about the major impact – both positive and negative – the language used by staff in mental health services can have, and last year I commented on the public’s sector perennial problem with plain English.

Using language which frames the citizens of Newham, or indeed anywhere else, as ‘customers’, effectively limits the terms of the public’s participation with the state and imposes an understated but clear power dynamic. After all, the phrase “customer service” denotes services provided to the customer, not services which the customer contributes to delivering.

And now, perhaps more than ever before, there is a real need for the public sector to move beyond these superficial “transactional” relationships with citizens, to something more meaningful and equal. This is of course already happening in many places. We heard from two Community Links employees about the vital work they are doing to help people in Newham. Elsewhere we’ve seen from our own Unlocking Local Capacity research and ongoing work that those councils which are fairing better during these times of limited resource are ones which are putting the assets, ideas and energy of their communities to good use.

In his keynote speech Jon Cruddas spoke of the important role “social growth” can have in stimulating the economy, and from our own work, we know the many benefits that initiatives which help to build people’s social connections and improve the resilience of communities bring. But, as the former Newham parish priest’s observation reminds us, in order to maximise the potential of people in local areas, there is still much the public sector needs to learn about the way it conceives of, and communicates with, citizens.