Hey Doug Burgum, the Government Does Not Have “Customers”


Doug Burgum was the featured speaker at the January Lorentzsen Center luncheon at the Avalon Events Center in Fargo Friday, January 24, 2014. Darren Gibbins / The Forum

Republican Governor-elect Doug Burgum is hard at work on transitioning into the position of our state’s top executive, but as he does so I hope he re-considers the way he and transition team are talking about the office.

Case in point, these comments by Jodi Uecker who is chairing Burgum’s transition team:

“Gov.-elect Doug Burgum and his transition team have been meeting with the department heads of every agency to identify how we can move our state forward in the 21st century,” Jodi Uecker, Burgum’s transition team chair, said in a statement. “We’re going to have a top-notch team that is committed to Doug and Brent’s priorities of balancing the budget without raising taxes and reinventing state government so that we can treat the taxpayers of North Dakota like the customers that they are.”

Burgum has talked about some fundamental changes to how our state government works. This is not a man intent on tweaking some budget line items. He wants reforms for how government works, and I’m honestly looking forward to seeing what he proposes. “You don’t need more money,” he has said. “You need better ideas.”

I won’t lie. That’s like a breath of fresh air.

But Burgum and his team need to stop thinking of government as a business, and we taxpayers as its customers. That sort of nomenclature is fashionable among center-right politicians, but it’s based on a phony premise.

Government is not a business. The goal of business is to turn a profit. Government should not be trying to profit.

And we taxpayers are not customers, because when you’re a customer you get to choose which business you patronize. Government, on the other hand, has a monopoly on being the government. If you don’t like, say, the tax policy offered by the State of North Dakota it’s not like you can choose another government like you can choose another insurance company or grocery store.

Sure, you can move to another state, and that our system of governance allows even that level of voting with your feet is part of the genius of federalism. But it’s still nothing like choosing Walmart over Target.

I get why politicians like Burgum talk about government as though it was a business. It’s born of a desire to bring the sort of accountability and scrutiny the private sector operates under to government, and that’s a noble impulse.

But government is not a business. Taxpayers are not customers. If Burgum comes into office expecting to operate like a CEO I’m afraid he’s going to be less successful than many, including this humble observer, would like.