US Secretary for Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald hoped to make lemonade from lemons when he insisted that “better customer service” would fix all that ails the Department of Veterans Affairs. But, with all due respect (and a guess that he’s seriously underestimating the scope of the VA’s problems), I believe “customer” is an utterly inadequate term for anyone government serves.

Apt in a commercial exchange, the term “customer” reduces the relationship between citizen and government to a mere transaction, which it isn’t. Businesses market their goods and services to earn customer interest, and win customer loyalty. Government institutions don’t have to do that because they aren’t businesses. They have to earn our confidence by performing well in their appointed tasks. They don’t have to win over our loyalty, because we already own them—yes, own. Much as we seem afflicted with amnesia about the fundamental truth that government institutions belong to us, it’s how a democracy works. Citizens collectively own government and entrust stewardship of its institutions to elected officials and civil servants. So what happens when we start distancing ourselves from those institutions, believing the manipulative whack-jobs who insist “government is the problem,” and ignoring how our stewards are maintaining what we as citizens own? The institutions go to hell in a hand basket, as my grandmother used to say.

What also happens is that well-intentioned community-based leaders swoop in to fill the cracks and crevices. School officials lack the will, and high schools therefore lack the capacity to help students navigate the college entrance process—and so witness the patchwork bandages of small nonprofit college access programs that have come running to the aid of young people around the country. Similarly, a whole safety net of nonprofit community health clinics has kludged themselves together, attempting with frightful unevenness to serve the poor and uninsured long before and now even after the advent of federal Affordable Care Act health insurance protections. These and so many other programs and services offered by the American nonprofit sector are crucial, valuable, and enriching. Yet instead of becoming the world’s greatest gap-fillers and shoring up lapses in government service, we leaders of nonprofit organizations must shift our focus to advocating for robustness in the permanent, human-serving institutions of government and the policies that will ensure that they thrive and stay strong.

Capitalist economies insist that people consume. Part of this arrangement is that we willingly sell off bits of our loyalty to various brands and businesses—our bank, the stores where we buy clothing and food, our phone service provider, our doctor, this or that auto manufacturer. We’re complicit in allowing a share of ourselves to be owned, which is OK as long as we understand the terms of the deal. We don’t have to do that with government. We’re not government’s customers. We’re more like government’s “privileged beneficiaries”—a fact that elevates what government does for us well above a mere customer transaction.

Even if we never experience directly the value a public agency provides—not all of us served or will serve in the military, for example—we’re still beneficiaries. We have government institutions in place to head off mass disease outbreaks so that our families and communities will survive flu or Ebola epidemics. We want our courts to adjudicate criminal cases and punish the bad guys—regardless of the color of their skin or the cut of their uniform. Our public schools are supposed to educate kids to read, write, and think so that they can participate as citizens of a democracy and successfully compete in the workplace. And as tax-paying adults, those kids we invest in need to make sure that our social security system stays solvent and elders have a shot at aging with a modicum of dignity.

We’ve gone a long way in the last several decades down the dead-end road of denying that we own the government institutions that we do, in fact, own. Increasingly during that time, we’ve grown more comfortable ceding bits of our loyalty—and our incomes—to businesses adept at making it very attractive for us to be their customers. And when we become unsatisfied, we can take our business elsewhere.

But despite its many levels and complexities—federal, state, local—we have only one government and, for better or worse, it’s government of us, by us and for us. Lest we completely lose the capacity for managing our citizen stake in the public institutions that make up government, perhaps we ought to recognize the value and potential of what it is that we own together. Maybe then we’ll start to see that it’s really up to us to make sure those institutions live up to our expectations of quality and equality. We as civil society and nonprofit sector leaders must pay attention, and track and monitor actions of elected officials. That means keeping a watchful and discerning eye on the larger political architecture, as well as the weedy but necessary deals that elected officials engage in every day to satisfy the interests of competing constituencies.

Many youth rising today who will assume positions of responsibility, activism, and leadership for our society may have bought into the false premise that government is somehow dispensable. That’s ridiculous, foolish, and fraught with danger. Humans cannot willy-nilly discard organs essential to their survival, health, and freedom of movement. Similarly with the organs of government: They are integral to democratic society’s healthy functioning and liberating vigor. The highest duty of leaders everywhere is to assure that the democratic body politic possesses government with open-eyed discernment—and with all appropriate pride.

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