Street-level bureaucracy

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Street-level bureaucracy is the subset of a public agency or government institution containing the individuals who carry out and enforce the actions required by laws and public policies. Street-level bureaucracy is accompanied by the idea that these individuals vary the extents to which they enforce the rules and laws assigned to them.

Street-level bureaucrats[edit]

The concept of street-level bureaucracy was first coined by Michael Lipsky in 1977, who argued that "policy implementation in the end comes down to the people who actually implement it".[1] He argued that state employees such as police and social workers should be seen as part of the "policy-making community" and as exercisers of political power.

Examples of street-level bureaucrats[edit]

Street-level bureaucrats include police officers, firefighters, and other individuals, who on a daily basis interact with regular citizens and provide the force behind the given rules and laws in their areas of expertise.

Problems with street-level bureaucracy[edit]

Lipsky identified several problems with street-level bureaucracy, including "the problem of limited resources, the continuous negotiation that is necessary in order to make it seem like one is meeting targets, and the relations with (nonvoluntary) clients".[1] However, some commentators have challenged Lipsky's model. Tony Evans and John Harris."[2] argue that "the proliferation of rules and regulations should not automatically be equated with greater control over professional discretion; paradoxically, more rules may create more discretion." They also argue that the exercise of professional discretion by street-level bureaucrats is not inherently "bad", but can be seen as an important professional attribute.[2]

A 2003 American study, conducted by Steven Maynard Moody of the University of Kansas and Michael Musheno, then of Arizona State University, reiterated the significance of street-level bureaucrats in the political process, asserting that street-level workers "actually make policy choices rather than simply implement the decisions of elected officials."[3] They also claim, based on a study of 48 street-level state employees in two states, that "workers' beliefs about the people they interact with continually rub against policies and rules" and that the prejudices of the street-level bureaucrats influence their treatment of citizens.[3][4]

In 2007, Emil Mackey confirmed that even the Resident Assistants in campus housing exercise their discretion to change policy at the implementation level. Furthermore, these policy implementation changes reflected the individual values of each street-level bureaucrat rather than the will of policymakers. Therefore, this research not only confirmed previous street-level bureaucrat research and literature, but also expanded it to include the Higher Education policy environment.[5]

Technology and Street-level Bureaucracy[edit]

Concerning increasing technological advances and its relationship with street-level bureaucracy, there are two major theories: Curtailment theory, and Enablement Theory. Curtailment theory holds that increasing technological advances hinders street-level bureaucrats and their ability to perform effectively; especially concerning their ability of discretion. Enablement theory holds that increasing technological advances, at best, empowers the existing abilities of the street-level bureaucrat and better informs the citizen. At worst, its effects are ambiguous.

Curtailment Theory[edit]

It was first argued by Snellen that increasing technological advances (ITA) “deeply challenges [the street-level bureaucrat’s] ability to manipulate information.”[6][7] Snellen believed it was the ability to manipulate information that gave the SLB’s their power. He further argued that as more decisions are made by computers or other automated machines, SLB’s will lose their discretionary powers and it will shift to other actors.[8][6][7]

However, there are four problems with this thesis. First, it is implied, but never proven, that with the arrival of more technology, discretion at the frontline will diminish or become non-existent.[8] Second, Snellen’s definition of the SLB’s source of power is too narrow and does not take into account other sources of discretion.[8] Third, this thesis only pertains to particular public organizations and does not apply to more common types of street-level bureaucracies such as police departments, schools, or social welfare departments.[8] Lastly, this theory does not take into account how SLB’s and other caseworkers actually utilize this new technology and how that might affect their performance.

Enablement Theory[edit]

In contrast to the Curtailment Theory, a 2007 study by Jorna and Wagenaar showed that ITA was able to increase the amount of work done while cutting down on inconsistencies.[9] However, the meaning and content of this work was not able to be captured and understood by ITA. A 2004 study by Vitalis and Duhaut highlighted the ambiguous nature of ITA.[10] It was shown that the Internet or other forms of technology were utilized for simpler tasks, and more elaborate and complex matters were dealt with face to face with workers and citizens. Vitalis and Duhaut come to the conclusion that a SLB has their discretionary power enhanced by ITA, and citizens benefit from ITA by being better informed of their rights when dealing with SLBs and their institutions.[10] This theory maintains that discretion by the SLB is not hindered in anyway by ITA and will continue to do their jobs effectively. This theory also focuses more on how ITA is utilized by both citizens and state agents which puts more emphasis on the ability of ITA to further help and empower SLBs and citizens.[8]


  1. ^ a b Lipsky, M., Street-level Bureaucracy; Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, 1980, view summary
  2. ^ a b Evans, T and Harris, J, Street-Level Bureaucracy, Social Work and the (Exaggerated) Death of Discretion, British Journal of Social Work, vol.34, no.6, September 2004, view abstract
  3. ^ a b Maynard-Moody, S and Musheno, M, Cops, Teachers, Counselors: Stories from the Front Lines of Public Service, University of Michigan Press, 2003, view summary
  4. ^ Also see Norma M. Riccucci, How Management Matters: Street-Level Bureaucrats and Welfare Reform. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005.
  5. ^ Mackey, Emil Robert (2008). Street-level bureaucrats and the shaping of university housing policy. Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press. 
  6. ^ a b Lipsky, Michael (2010). Street-Level Bureaucracy. Russell Sage Foundation. 
  7. ^ a b Snellen, I (2002). "Electronic Governance: Implications for Citizens, Politicians and Public Servants". International Review of Administrative Sciences 68 (2): 183–198. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Buffat, Aurelien (2013). "Street-Level Bureaucracy and E-Government". Public Management Review 17 (1): 149–161. 
  9. ^ Jorna, F; Wagenaar, P (2007). "The Iron Cage Strengthened? Discretion and Digital Discipline". Public Administration 85 (1). 
  10. ^ a b Vitalis, A; Duhaut, N (2004). "Nouvelles Technologies De L'information Et De La Communication Et Relation Administrative: De La Relation De Guichet A La Relation De Reseau". Revue Francaise D'Administration Publique 110 (1).  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help);