A recent rainy morning in San Carlos, I’m back to doing something I love: training public sector officials (on this day, 25 of them) in how to better engage their residents in policy-making. While losing a statewide political campaign is uniquely painful, I was most gratified to see that a set of policy issues I’ve spent most of the last eight years working on around the state, not only translated well into a political context, they resonated with Californians who told me on numerous occasions that I would be the first Republican they’d ever voted for.

At my Institute, we’ve trained over 1,000 government officials in the last five years, and in San Carlos I saw again what may be fundamental to this changing relationship between government and the rest of us. In post-training surveys for the “Public Engagement: The Vital Leadership Skill” seminar that I co-lead with my colleague and longtime city manager, Ed Everett, the concept that (by far) gets the most positive response is when we outline the biggest challenge to doing effective public engagement.

Towards the middle of the session, Ed talks about his experience in leading a mid-sized Bay Area city in the mid-1980s at the early stages of the customer service revolution in retail stores like Nordstrom’s and Target. This “customer first” mindset filtered into the public sector, and leaders like Ed sent senior staff to private sector customer service trainings. Within a year, staff noticed that while they continued to push these concepts throughout government, residents were showing up to city hall with a different attitude.

On an array of issues – from public safety to planning – where city staff had relied on involved residents for both input and help for years, they were now acting like…well…demanding customers! The phrases, “I pay your salary”, and “My taxes are supposed to take care of this”, were heard with more frequency, just as the staff was indeed improving their levels of customer service.

The growing friction came to a head during a staff meeting. Frustrated department heads recounted similar stories of being treated like they were selling tires at Sears. Ed pushed back, “In certain instances, we have to ask residents to participate as community members who take ownership of some of our challenges.” A director responded, “Well what are they, Ed, customers or citizens?”

“Well,” stuttered Ed, “they’re both!” We’re both.

Public leadership – particularly at the local and state levels – has entered its most difficult era in at least a century. And I’m convinced that a large part of the challenges faced are due to the broadening gap between our private sector and public sector experiences. Compare what it’s like to try to pay a parking ticket online with a recent purchase on Amazon, and you quickly realize the difference between these “customer” encounters. Or contrast the ease with which you can submit feedback about your favorite local restaurant on Yelp against, well, any comment mechanisms about your local school.

This “citizen vs. customer” dynamic is also occurring within a fiscal context that continues to force governments at all levels to do more with less. As public policy experts Bill Eggers and Paul Macmillan write in their recent book, The Solution Revolution, “The defining feature of Western-style government – its success in catering to a wide variety of citizen needs – has become its greatest liability. Governments are going broke while contorting themselves into ever-stranger positions to satisfy often contradictory constituent demands.”

Where these policy challenges become political should become the foundation for our debates going forward, but instead they have become swallowed into simplistic arguments about whether government is “too big” or “too small”, or whether “government is the only thing we all belong to” (from a Democrat National Committee video), or it’s something that should just “leave me alone” (from remarks by Rand Paul).

The political field is open for a movement with a mission to make government more transparent and responsive – to treat us better as customers, and to better involve and inform us as citizens. As a Republican in California, of course I believe that this effort is most logically situated in my party with its history of political reform, and its distance from public sector special interests. But it will take building new relationships with the growing number of moderate Democrats who want government to deliver on its promises while Republicans must renounce our traditional anti-government rhetoric.