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Street Level Bureaucracy

Street Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services

Copyright Date: 1980
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Street Level Bureaucracy
    Book Description:

    Street-Level Bureaucracy is an insightful study of how public service workers, in effect, function as policy decision makers, as they wield their considerable discretion in the day-to-day implementation of public programs.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-771-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. PREFACE: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)

    • CHAPTER 1 The Critical Role of Street-Level Bureaucrats
      (pp. 3-12)

      Public service workers currently occupy a critical position in American society. Although they are normally regarded as low-level employees, the actions of most public service workers actually constitute the services “delivered” by government. Moreover, when taken together the individual decisions of these workers become, or add up to, agency policy. Whether government policy is to deliver “goods”—such as welfare or public housing—or to confer status—such as “criminal” or “mentally ill”—the discretionary actions of public employees are the benefits and sanctions of government programs or determine access to government rights and benefits.

      Most citizens encounter government (if...

    • CHAPTER 2 Street-Level Bureaucrats as Policy Makers
      (pp. 13-26)

      Street-level bureaucrats make policy in two related respects. They exercise wide discretion in decisions about citizens with whom they interact. Then, when taken in concert, their individual actions add up to agency behavior. The task in this chapter is to demonstrate that the position of street-level bureaucrats regularly permits them to make policy with respect to significant aspects of their interactions with citizens. Later chapters will explore the implications of making policy at the street level.

      The policy-making roles of street-level bureaucrats are built upon two interrelated facets of their positions: relatively high degrees of discretion and relative autonomy from...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 27-28)

      STREET-LEVEL BUREAUCRACIES are consistently criticized for their inability to provide responsive and appropriate service. The experience of seeking service through people-processing bureaucracies is perceived by enough people as dehumanizing that the phrase “human services” is often understood as ironic by all but those who work under that label.¹

      The persistence of rigid and unresponsive patterns of behavior results from street-level bureaucrats’ substantial discretion, exercised in a particular work context. Like other policy makers, they operate in an environment that conditions the way they perceive problems and frame solutions to them. The work environment of street-level bureaucrats is structured by common...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Problem of Resources
      (pp. 29-39)

      Bureaucratic decision making takes place under conditions of limited time and information. Decision makers typically are constrained by the costs of obtaining information relative to their resources, by their capacity to absorb information, and by the unavailability of information.¹ However, street-level bureaucrats work with a relatively high degree of uncertainty because of the complexity of the subject matter (people) and the frequency or rapidity with which decisions have to be made. Not only is reliable information costly and difficult to obtain but for street-level bureaucrats high case loads, episodic encounters, and the constant press of decisions force them to act...

    • CHAPTER 4 Goals and Performance Measures
      (pp. 40-53)

      Supervision and control provide guidance toward bureaucratic goals. Performance measures offer feedback to adjust the system. The clearer the goals and the better developed the performance measures, the more finely tuned guidance can be. The less clear the goals and the less accurate the feedback, the more will individuals in a bureaucracy be on their own. The ambiguity and unclarity of goals and the unavailability of appropriate performance measures in street-level bureaucracies is of fundamental importance not only to workers’ job experience, but also to managers’ ability to exercise control over policy.

      Street-level bureaucrats characteristically work in jobs with conflicting...

    • CHAPTER 5 Relations with Clients
      (pp. 54-70)

      Clients in street-level bureaucracies are nonvoluntary. This point is obvious in coercive public agencies such as police departments, but it also applies when the coercive dimensions of the relationship between the agency and the client are less clear. This is because street-level bureaucracies often supply essential services which citizens cannot obtain elsewhere. Government agencies may have a monopoly on the service, clients may not be able to afford private services, or they may not have ready access to them. Potential welfare recipients in a sense “volunteer” to apply for welfare, for example, but their participation in the welfare system is...

    • CHAPTER 6 Advocacy and Alienation in Street-Level Work
      (pp. 71-80)

      To deliver street-level policy through bureaucracy is to embrace a contradiction. On the one hand, service is delivered by people to people, invoking a model of human interaction, caring, and responsibility. On the other hand, service is delivered through a bureaucracy, invoking a model of detachment and equal treatment under conditions of resource limitations and constraints, making care and responsibility conditional.

      The human model of interaction contributes to the motivation of public service workers, who believe they are helping others, and to the motivation of clients, who are encouraged to confide and trust in strangers and permit themselves to be...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 81-86)

      Street-level bureaucrats work with inadequate resources in circumstances where the demand will always increase to meet the supply of services. Thus they can never be free from the implications of significant constraints. Within these constraints they have broad discretion with respect to the utilization of resources (by definition). In the application of resources to the job they confront the uncertainty that stems from the conflicting or ambiguous goals that unevenly guide their work. They also confront the additional uncertainties that arise from difficulties in measuring and evaluating work performances. A final salient condition of work is that the people with...

    • CHAPTER 7 Rationing Services: Limitation of Access and Demand
      (pp. 87-104)

      Theoretically there is no limit to the demand for free public goods. Agencies that provide public goods must and will devise ways to ration them. To ration goods or services is to establish the level or proportions of their distribution. This may be done by fixing the amount or level of goods and services in relation to other goods and services. Or it may be done by allocating a fixed level or amount of goods and services among different classes of recipients. In other words, services may be rationed by varying the total amount available, or by varying the distribution...

    • CHAPTER 8 Rationing Services: Inequality in Administration
      (pp. 105-116)

      Free public goods and services may be rationed by imposing costs and fixing their amount. They may also be rationed by allocating them differentially among classes of claimants. In street-level bureaucracies services are distributed differentially for at least four interconnected reasons.

      First, as mentioned before, to a degree the society wants bureaucracies to be capable of responding flexibly to unique situations and to be able to treat people in terms of their individual circumstances. This is particularly the case for street-level bureaucracies. Teachers are expected to be interested in the individual child, policemen to be capable of flexible responses, social...

    • CHAPTER 9 Controlling Clients and the Work Situation
      (pp. 117-139)

      Every social order depends on the general consent of its members. Even the most coercive of institutions, such as prisons, function only so long as those affected by the institution cooperate in its activities (even if the cooperation is secured ultimately by force). Typically, cooperation is neither actively coerced nor freely given, but, rather, it emerges from the structure of alternatives.

      In the previous chapters I discussed ways in which patterns of street-level practice function to ration services. A second general function of street-level practice is not so much to limit services or choose among clients, but to obtain client...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Client-Processing Mentality
      (pp. 140-156)

      The drill sergeant who insists that soldiers stand tall, keep their eyes straight, and march in precision achieves results without knowing the state of mind, predispositions, or previous military experience of the recruits. He is untroubled by the needs of individuals and is at ease with mass processing. Street-level bureaucrats are not so favored. Their work involves the built-in contradiction that, while expected to exercise discretion in response to individuals and individual cases, in practice they must process people in terms of routines, stereotypes, and other mechanisms that facilitate work tasks.

      Workers defend these patterns psychologically. They regard their adaptations...


    • CHAPTER 11 The Assault on Human Services: Bureaucratic Control, Accountability, and the Fiscal Crisis
      (pp. 159-179)

      This chapter examines the current application of administrative measures to secure accountability among street-level bureaucrats. I argue that bureaucratic accountability is virtually impossible to achieve among lower-level workers who exercise high degrees of discretion, at least where qualitative aspects of the work are involved. Nonetheless, public managers are pressured to secure or improve workers’ accountability through manipulation of incentives and other aspects of job structure immediately available to them. When considered along with other objectives public managers seek, the results may not simply be ineffective but may also lead to an erosion of service quality.

      Current perceptions of fiscal crisis...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Broader Context of Bureaucratic Relations
      (pp. 180-191)

      In considering the potential for change in street-level bureaucracies it would be a mistake to restrict analysis to the coping dilemmas and adaptations of service workers, or the patterns of practice that develop among them. The resolution of contradictory tendencies in street-level bureaucracies cannot be understood without examining the role of these public agencies in the society and the ways in which the society impinges on the character of bureaucratic relations. As V. O. Key Jr. has observed: “... one of the great functions of the bureaucratic organizations is as a conservator of the values of a culture. In the...

    • CHAPTER 13 Support for Human Services: Notes for Reform and Reconstruction
      (pp. 192-212)

      I have argued that the determinants of street-level practice are deeply rooted in the structure of the work. Further, I have pointed out that street-level bureaucracies do not stand alone, but they reflect the character of prevailing organizational relations in the society as a whole. In turn, as a primary instrument of contact between government and citizens, street-level bureaucracies reinforce the relationships between citizens—both clients and workers—and the state. These observations contribute to our understanding of the stability of the institutions and their unlikely responsiveness to significant reform activities.

      Nonetheless, it is important to address the potential for...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 213-236)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 237-254)