Analogies are a basic way we think and communicate. They help us see things in new ways and explain our experiences to people who haven’t . . . well, experienced them. Analogies, of course, draw similarities between things that aren’t really all that similar. So you could see life as a marathon, an election as a football game, a debate as a tennis match, and so on. (Needless to say, sports analogies are popular.)
We often use analogies to understand cities, too. But in doing so, we should be aware of the limits of analogies and the harm that faulty analogies can do. The ones that I think do the greatest harm are those comparing cities to businesses and citizens to customers.
Before beginning, let me say that I like business. I’ve owned several businesses in the last 20 years, and before that I was a business journalist. So mark me down as a fan and beneficiary of capitalism. Further, I think cities can learn a lot from the ways businesses approach things. In many cases, cities and their leaders suffer from a lack of focus. If there’s anything successful businesses do well, it’s retaining focus. Finally, there’s a great deal written about business that’s relevant to cities. So if you’re looking for new approaches to common civic leadership issues—like finding good ideas, developing young leaders, managing crises or dealing with difficult people—you’ll find much of what you’re looking for on the business shelves of bookstores or in the pages of Harvard Business Review.
And, in truth, there are times when citizens can be seen as similar to customers. In the early 1990s a popular book, “Reinventing Government,” urged government leaders to do just that—regard citizens not as constituents but as valued customers and use what corporations know about customer satisfaction to make it more pleasant dealing with government agencies. (If you’ve found it easier in the last 20 years to renew a driver’s license or apply for a permit, you can thank this book.)
So if it helps deliver services that are cheaper, better and faster, then I’ll all for using business analogies. But here’s where I grow wary: the relationship I have with where I live should be far deeper than my relationship with Apple Computer, Ford Motor Co. or Coca-Cola.
Let’s start with the basic analogy that citizens are like customers. Yes, in receiving city services like garbage collection, water and sewer, and even police and fire protection, we’re like business customers in the sense that we want the greatest value for the lowest price. And don’t underestimate the importance of these services in making citizens happy. If you’ve ever spent a long day at city hall trying to get a business license, or waited an hour for the police to show up for a traffic accident, then you know how poor service makes you feel about a place. And keep in mind that the majority of city governments’ payroll and budget is in the delivery of direct services to citizens, so money saved and satisfaction gained by doing these things right can have a huge impact.
But beyond this point, the business analogy breaks down. If we’re sometimes consumers of city services, then we’re also part-owners of the city, especially if we own a home or rental property. Does that make us like shareholders in a corporation? Well, in the sense that we want asset growth (that is, the value of our property to rise), yes. But, in truth, we really don’t own homes like we do stocks. Homes aren’t just financial investments; they’re comfort zones, objects of pride and self-expression, and centers of family and social life. Stocks are impersonal financial instruments; homes are full of meaning, much of it connected to the community around it. I’ve bought and sold plenty of shares, but I’ve never found a way to use a share of Ford Motor for hosting a family dinner or organizing a block party.
There are other roles that citizens play. If you want to use another business analogy, here’s one: the citizen as employee. In companies, employees create the goods or services that the company sells. In cities, much of the community’s value—what it “sells” to visitors, prospective businesses and future residents—is created by its citizens. Think about it: If you’ve been impressed by a city’s lovely neighborhoods, creative festivals and parades, or thriving economy, you’re looking at things the citizens themselves brought about. Yes, government often plays a supporting role, but it’s usually a portion of what the citizens are doing for themselves.
So even if you’re partial to business analogies, you quickly realize that the citizen-as-customer works only in some instances, and there are other times when you could see citizens as owners or employees. And there are yet other ways that citizens relate to cities that no business analogy can cover. Take identity. Yes, there are some companies that inspire great loyalty among customers and employees (think Apple Computer or the sporting-goods retailer REI), but these are rarities. Identifying with the place you live is the rule.
Doubt it? Remember the old “Seinfeld” episode, where Elaine is assigned a new telephone area code, 646? She tries desperately to convince people that she still lives in Manhattan, home of the 212 area code, but can’t. Finally, she finagles her way back to a 212 area code because living in Manhattan is so important to her she can’t bear for people to think she lives anywhere else.
Why does all this matter? Because one of the greatest problems civic leaders have is understanding the potential and power of citizenship. When we compare citizens to customers, we are selling them way, way short. It’s like comparing life to a marathon. Only in the most superficial way is life like a marathon. And thank goodness for that. Otherwise, we’d be out of breath all the time.
Photo by Victoria Pickering licensed under Creative Commons.