Bread and circuses

Juvenal in the Satires referred to the political practice of populism as the people abdicating their duties for ‘bread and circuses’, this compares with the emphasis placed in traditional Roman society upon ‘civis Romanus sum’ or ‘I am a Roman citizen’, by which the privilege of being a member of Roman society was balanced by the acceptance of rights and duties.

What has this to do with e-government? Its back to the current practice of describing citizens as customers! By talking about customer need, satisfaction or whatever I would contend that we are in danger of offering them ‘bread and circuses’, and forgetting to associate it with the privilege of citizenship and all it entails, such as the duties.

This was captured in a Canadian document of 1996, ‘A Strong Foundation – Report of the Task Force on Public service, Values and Ethics’ from a group chaired by John C. Tait QC. Tait’s task force picks up on the tensions between treating citizens as user, customer or client and makes a number of important points such as on page 36:
“In every public service transaction or activity, the true public servant must be alive to issues of equity and fairness to a degree that is rarely required of private sector managers.”
Tait’s report also identifies the conflict between New Public Management (NPM) and public administration but importantly does not state that we mustn’t use the expressions but be actively aware of the tensions they introduce. We can call the citizen a customer but ensure that both the public servant and the citizen are aware of their respective duties and obligations.

With government’s concern over active citizenship I purport that it is time to focus on the expectations of citizenship and that this can be used to encourage feedback on services and assistance in improving or developing them.


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