Street-level Bureaucracy – A Problem In Public Management

Since most public policies are delivered by frontline servants, a central topic of discussion is how stated plans translate into real life actions. The fact that the performance of street-level bureaucrats have an impact on how a policy is executed is not under question, even so, “it is well accepted that the actions at the frontlines of policy do sometimes, if not often, differ from the intentions of higher ups” (May and Winter, 2007, p. 453). Nonetheless, there are diverse opinions on the grounds to explain the sources and the extent of this divergence phenomenon. Each point of view focuses on particular characteristics of street-level bureaucracy recognizing specific problems to be corrected.

Following Gofen’s classification, this paper presents “street-level divergence either as a choice of the individual street-level worker or as inevitable in policy implementation” (2013, p. 475). The first school focuses on the correlation between motivation and compliance, stating that diversion of interests between the worker and the organization can negatively impact the delivery process. The second school pays attention to the level of autonomy display by civil servants within sanctioned parameters. It is said that divergence will be always present because is impossible to regulate all potential events. However, controversy arises when discussing the extent of discretion that should be authorized and if its consequences are positive or negative. From a hierarchical point of view, a high level of autonomy is regarded as problematic and needed to be corrected with better instruments of control. Contrarily, from a more egalitarian approach, autonomy is regarded as a positive driven of institutional change within certain boundaries. This latter debate encompasses a traditional top-down-versus-bottom-up discussion.

The stream of thought that portrays street-level divergence as a choice makes behaviour the primary operational concern. In the public management scenario, this theory analyses “an individual’s predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions and organizations” (Perry and Wise, 1990, cited in Bozeman and Su, 2015, p.701). For instance, Brehm and Gates (1999) examine the factors that influence bureaucrats’ willingness to work, shirk or sabotage policy. Similarly, Lipsky (2010, p.17) stresses on the importance of building a work environment in which lower-level workers share the interests of those at higher levels. Both authors agree that non-cooperation, such as avoidance or undermining a programme’s mission, hinders the organization’s likelihood to achieve its public objectives since the staff will not be working at their full capacity. In these situations it is possible to apply the principal-agent principal since the worker might be acting motivated by self-interest or by interests that go against of those of the public service.

In other words, this school focuses on the outcome of performance taking into consideration what influences the willingness to work of street-level bureaucrats. From this point of view, servants motivated by self-serving or other serving considerations deter the organizations’ efforts to correctly direct human resources in fulfilling their mission.

The second school, which sees divergence as inevitable, pays more attention to the discretion display by street-level bureaucrats on their daily actions. This perspective observes that the void generated by the relative autonomy from higher authority has to be filled by street-level factors (May and Winter, 2007, p. 455). It is considered that divergence is inevitable either because the work environment impedes to carry the service as formally stated, or because the policy guidelines are insufficient or ambiguous.

Lipsky (1971) ascribes to the first approach stating that in many cases public workers who regularly interact with citizens cannot perform according to the highest standards due to inadequate resources, physical and psychological threats, and/or ambiguous job expectations. Consequently, street-level bureaucrats “manage their difficult jobs by developing routines of practice that strongly influence the outcomes of their efforts” (Lipsky, 1971, p. xii). From this perspective the policy is not implemented as planned but as the civil servant actually executes it which usually corresponds to a simplification of the formal expectation.

Even though this approach pays more attention to the environment rather than to the worker’s motivation, case to case, it might difficult to separate this perspective from the one based on choice. An example of frontline abandonment described by Hood (1998) serves to illustrate this point. In Hoyerswerda, a year after German unification, a racial attack against foreign workers from other communist countries took place. Even though there were policemen available to control the situations, they decided to act after the incident has passed.

On one hand, according to the author “it shows the ‘private interest’ of public-service providers being pursue in a subtler way by avoiding unpleasant or dangerous front-line work, putting producers’ comfort or safety first” (1998, p. 31). The emphasis on self-consideration and contempt for the organization’s mission, indicates an inclination towards the first school presented. However, the author continues to analyse the episode stating that “an ever-present problem for public management is that those who provide public services […] too often opt for the easy and congenial work rather than more stressful and ‘nitty-gritty’ operations” (1998, p. 32). This time the focus is on the actions carried by the policemen which can be portray as a coping mechanism from Lipsky’s point of view. They did not follow the higher-level instructions of enforcing the law and protecting all citizens because they felt threatened. The same author analyses one incident from both points of view demonstrating that they are not contradictory and can even explain the same incident. However, each approach would recommend different solutions. The first would concentrate on mechanisms to socialize the police office’s public mission among its workers or on the creation of an incentive system to stimulate them. While the other would work on improving the security and wellbeing of the policemen in combating dangerous situations so they can correctly perform their duty and not wait until the event has passed to intervene.

The second approach that sees divergence as inevitable, centres on the degree of autonomy display by street-level bureaucrats. The response to frontline discretion depends on the attitude towards managerial mechanisms. To illustrate both approximations, a case studied by Gofen will be analysed. In the example, the Ministry of Education in Israel launched a new reading curriculum to be applied in elementary school. Following up in the implementation, it was found that teachers did not adopt the new curriculum and continue to use the pre-existing one because they alleged that “students simply didn’t learn to read” with the new tools (Gofen, 2013, p. 487).

From a hierarchical perspective this is an example of policy failure because the teachers chose to rely on their own observations completely disregarding the expertise of the authority. Prottas (1978) would suggest that the Ministry did not effectively oversee the behaviour of the teachers. Consequently he would recommend to tighten control mechanisms and design a system of incentives to adequate the actions of the teachers to the desired behaviour.

On the contrary, from an egalitarian view, the example constitutes an opportunity to improve the new curriculum incorporating street-level knowledge. In this case, it appears that the teachers did not oppose immediately the new curriculum but once they realized that their pupils were not learning. Hence, they pondered the alternative to implement the new curriculum and fail to teach their students how to read, or to continue with a familiar method that they considered to be effective. This approximation is open to utilise the abilities of frontline employees as input considering that they have experience addressing public problems. From this point of view “not only should street-level practitioners not be more controlled or regulated but, on the contrary, they should rather be empowered (Gofen, 2013, p. 477). This approximation embraces Feldman and Pentland’s (2003) theory about organizational routines since the performance of street-level actors is underlined and seen as a source of change.

In conclusion, street-level bureaucracy is an important factor to be considered in policy implementation. Different schools focus on particular characteristics of the work carried by civil servants such as their motivation to work, the work environment or their level of discretion when making a street-level decision. Those emphases influence what to be considered as problematic and therefore what solutions should be pursue. The first school concentrates on how to motivate civil servants to perform to their full capacity; the second on displaying sufficient work resources so the employees do not have to make shortcuts to perform their duty; the third on the degree of specification of policies and on the degree in which street-level knowledge is valued.


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