I started my government career as a street-level bureaucrat. In the summer of 1990, I was a paralegal intern for the Richmond, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. The Department of Public Advocacy was a public defender’s office that covered four counties. My job was to interview the clients arrested and jailed. I would spend the morning in the jail interviewing clients and the afternoons writing up reports and doing legal research. Even for a small college town we were busy. The average caseload for our attorneys was between 200 to 250 cases a year. This experience led to my lifelong interest in street-level bureaucracies (SLB).
What makes an SLB different from other government agencies is that SLBs have immediate and direct contact with the public while most employees in other agencies deal almost exclusively with other government employees. SLBs are where policy is realized and implemented. The bulk of government employment is street-level bureaucrats such as police officers, teachers, social workers, and so on. As Michael Lipsky observed these government employees are charged with implementing and administering an ever-increasing set of policies and laws to an ever-growing population while facing shrinking budgets and resources. It may not be as bad as being consigned to Hades and tasked with eternally rolling a boulder up a hill, but there are days that it is close.
Street-level bureaucrats (SLB) have devised several methods to cope with their job as Jeffrey Prottas details in his book People–Processing. The SLB picks the rules they will follow because to follow every rule that comes down would immobilize the agency. The SLB trains the citizens it meets into becoming good clients who make life easier for the SLB by being compliant and not making extra work. The most significant advantage that the SLB has is their superior knowledge of the rules and processes through which the SLB can punish or reward clients by withholding or supplying information. Even though the SLB must exercise as little discretion as possible in fulfilling the agency’s objectives, they carve out a good deal of autonomy.
The studies that established the characteristics of the street-level bureaucrats (SLB) and their practices were done in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. You will see an occasional paper on SLBs but nothing yet as to the impact of social networking technologies and how they affect the work and practices of the SLB. Social networking has a profound effect on SLBs because it will destroy the information advantage SLBs have while better performance measurement tools will reduce the autonomy of SLBs.
Let’s discuss performance management tools first. When dashboard cameras were installed in police cars the police officer’s actions in the field were now more easily observed and monitored by their managers back at the station. Dashboard cameras were first resisted by police officers, but then they realized this was objective proof of why they had to deal with someone the way they did, and now most police officers welcome the scrutiny. Another related technology, GPS “tattlers” that record the routes taken by public service workers is not so well accepted but has helped cut down on abuse by some workers.
But where the most profound impact of social networking technologies is in erasing the information advantage the street-level bureaucrat has over clients. Just think of how car buying, medicine, law, and so many other areas have been influenced when consumers can go to a website and research the history of a car, the symptoms of a disease, or create their own will with freely-available information and the advice of a community with similar experiences. There is a substantial market out there for the person who writes a Dummies guide to the local welfare office or releases an app to help a citizen negotiate the process of applying for aid. I remember how empowered I felt when I first gained online access to my bank account and could see the same information the bank clerk saw as we spoke on the phone. The SLBs will lose a great deal of discretion when faced with a group of empowered clients who know the process and their rights even better than the SLB.
But these same social networking technologies can benefit the SLB. A large part of the work is screening the client, which could be done through an automated process, thus freeing the SLB to deal with the exceptional cases (you can see this already in some jurisdictions). Another benefit is for SLBs to form online communities where they can receive guidance from their peers at their desks and while working with clients. The performance management tools will provide an objective view of the burdens SLBs work under and may discourage management from stopping producing so many rules and erasing existing rules. We will not know the full impact of social technologies on the street-level bureaucracies for several years as the innovations diffuse through the agencies, but I am hopeful the effect will create a better future for both Client 2.0 and SLB 2.0.
- Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Prottas, J.M. (1979). People-processing: The street-level bureaucrat in public service bureaucracies. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.