Street Level Bureacrats

So, I went to a session at #apsa2013 on Lipsky and Street Level Bureaucrats (no, Lipsky wasn’t there) and it got me to thinking about a partial shift of thinking in this area. Consider my summary of Lipsky in Understanding Public Policy (p37):

Lipsky (1980) argues that policy is, to a large extent, made by the ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (including teachers, doctors, police officers, judges, and welfare officers) who deliver it. Bureaucrats are subject to an immense range of, often unclear, requirements laid down by regulations at the top, but are powerless to implement them all successfully (1980: 14). In other words, this is not necessarily an argument based on ‘disobedience’: committed workers do not have the resources to fulfil all of their job requirements (1980: xii). Instead, they use their discretion to establish routines to satisfy a proportion of central government objectives while preserving a sense of professional autonomy necessary to maintain morale. The irony is that the cumulative pressure associated with central government policy effectively provides implementers with a degree of freedom to manage their budgets and day-to-day activities. Therefore, policy change at the top will not necessarily translate to change at the bottom.

For me, the suggestion is that the routines are based on professional norms; each profession has its own formal and informal means to encourage professionals to act in a particular way. However, a lot of the discussion was about more modern studies of SLBs and a shift to a focus on street level organizations (SLOs). The argument here is that: (a) much of this work is now done by quasi or non-governmental organisations; (b) the rise of new public management has led to attempts to regulate that policy delivery through measures such as targets, contract management and performance management. It ties in neatly with the idea of a shift from government to governance which, in this case, refers to a shift from direct to indirect public service delivery. The phrase – from Evelyn Brodkin – that stuck with me is that performance management reduces policy down to a few aspects of the law. If I understood this correctly, it points to an important change in the Lipsky-style argument. When, under direct government delivery, the SLBs were the people reducing policy down into a smaller number of manageable acts, this role is often now performed by people higher up the chain when setting performance related targets. It reminded me of the ‘regulatory state’ style argument which speaks to the tension between professional discretion and rules-based action. This idea tied in neatly with another paper (Rubin/ Chiques) at the panel which suggested that there were fewer people in SLOs delivering policy with discretion. Rather, there were layers of management responsible for dealing with targets (although still, of course, there is an element of discretion when organisations game the system to meet targets). This informed the first paper (Schram et al) which talked about the routines evident in welfare policy work. Some of it was about familiar indicators of discretion to do with categorising people so that they didn’t lose out on social security payments. Some of it was about the routines associated simply with meeting targets and performing semi-automated tasks. So, Schram talked about a ‘dehumanising’ need to meet numerical targets and a form of discretion that was often ‘wide, not deep’. The papers were US based but the focus on a shift from direct delivery, by professions, to targets-based service delivery by quangos and/ or non-governmental organisations are relevant to countries like the UK.


Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy

4 responses to “Street Level Bureacrats

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