I was once asked if I would promise to spend myself in the service of the poor. I have thought about the way we construct “service” ever since. There are a few people who like to tell me they are “at my service”. They rarely are. Often, they are not really at anyone’s service. They do “provide services”. Apparently. When I suggest that is not the same thing they are perplexed. Service is rarely described in terms of who benefits and who is in control.
I get to talk to lots of people about service they provide. They are keen to tell me the details of what they do, and to whom. Not as keen to listen to the needs and wants of their client, or importantly what the client does not need or want. I have seen service providers, keen to describe their wares, ignore the person who is supposed to be their client. I have seen them appeal to others around to help the (by now fairly vocal) client “see sense” or “be reasonable” or (my favourite) “recognise that this is the best option for them”. Why? Why does the person seeking service have to adjust their needs and expectations to better reflect the desires and wants of the person delivering service? Especially (but not only) when the service provider is being paid to serve. It is not service being provided but a product.
Sometimes the client is the product and providers fight over them. In service the recipient should be in charge. They are to be assisted, not directed or coerced or managed. They drive the requirements, and the service should meet their needs and wants in a way and at a quality acceptable to the recipient. The service should be flexible. Many of the “services” pitched to me are none of those things. They are calibrated on some kind of average person who I have never met and who, importantly, is nothing like anyone likely to require the service.
I have seen service providers suggest it would be more convenient if someone was shorter, or taller. Thinner, or not so thin. Younger or older. Male. Or at least fitting a gender binary. Straight. More middle class – “it would be easier to place you” and less “different”. To cut or colour their hair. Or not. To wear different clothes, speak differently, not complain. To be quiet and acquiescent and no trouble. To be, importantly, more like the provider wishes them to be to fit their model. Service providers, in the name of efficiency and safety and a range of “good things”, determine who is a good fit for their service. Who is deserving and, by implication, who is not.
We need to stop calling these exercises of power over another “service”. They are not.
When you control the narrative, the context, the output, and what you are prepared to provide and not provide it has left the realm of service. You have a product. A product you want to force someone to accept or reject. It is a misuse of power to seek an outcome that benefits the service provider or someone else over the person seeking the service. At its heart is a belief that the service provider and/or their funder knows what is best for the client. What will improve them. What benefits the many and not just the one. What will make them good and complete and right.
The client matters, whether money changes hands or not. They must get to choose the kind of help they want and are willing to receive. Even when those who say they know better disagree. Especially then.
True service acknowledges, respects, and reinforces the agency and dignity of the one being served. The control of pace, quantity and quality of assistance, and definition of the outcome sought belongs rightly to the one to be served.
That is a challenging model. Perhaps the outcomes individuals want will not be the ones we want for them. Maybe they have different priorities. Maybe they do not want the service being offered. Maybe, given enough time and listening, they will articulate a different way of being served and a different outcome.
At your service, are they at your service, or are you at theirs?
Written by Allyson Essex. Allyson likes wicked problems, good coffee and conversations about awkward issues like money, sex, and power. She writes for fun, thinks for a living, and can’t quite work out how she got here from there.
Images used are sources from upsplash.com