Talk to state workers who deal with the public and you'll soon hear a word that outsiders don't normally associate with government: customers.
The people the state serves aren't "clients," "stakeholders" or even "the public." They're "customers."
DMV, for example, stresses customer service and even lists retail experience as a qualification for entry-level field office jobs.
The department, which sees 30 million visitors per year, has beefed up website transactions, uses social media and installed ATM-style kiosks in many offices for folks without Internet access. It's even testing a 7 a.m. opening time.
If you make an appointment for an office visit, most of the time you'll be at the counter within 15 minutes or so, said DMV spokesman Mike Marando.
"Taxpayers expect better service," he said. "California has 38 million residents and at some point every one of them will be our customer."
The word surfaced last week in a Department of Child Support Services news release after personal information, including driver's license and Social Security numbers, for about 800,000 individuals went missing: "The department is recommending customers place a fraud alert on their credit cards "
That includes deadbeat parents that the department chases down when they don't pay child support.
"We don't refer to our customers as 'deadbeats,' " said Child Support Services Assistant Director Connie DaMant.
Government co-opted the "customer" term in the 1980s, said University of North Carolina political scientist Frank Baumgartner, as privatizing government became a topic of debate. A government makeover plan during the Clinton presidency gave "customers" more cachet.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commissioned a review that included a section on "Putting Californians First Creating a Customer Service Framework."
But government isn't business, Baumgartner said, and it never will be. It has no competitors. DMV isn't like McDonald's because there's no Wendy's option.
There's also a line beyond which the government has no incentive to be nice. Ask a dad nailed for skipping those child support checks whether he's a customer of the state. Ask someone whose license is withheld at the DMV counter until he pays a parking fine.
You'll never find recliners and flat-screen satellite TVs at a DMV. Ultimately, they want to move you along. The website stuff? It may save time in line, but the trade-off is that you do more work. It's like going to McDonald's, flipping your own burger and then paying full price.
And on a deeper level, Baumgartner said, the government-customer model is "part of a huge victory of the intellectual right to get us to think of everything in terms of market metaphors."
Government by its very nature is messy and wields unique power. No matter what you call the governed, that's never going to change.