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Street-level bureaucracy

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Title: Street-level bureaucracy  
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Subject: Language politics, Politics, Michael Lipsky, Organizational culture, Bureaucracy
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Street-level bureaucracy

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.


  • History 1
  • Demand for street level bureaucrats 2
    • Education 2.1
    • Police Force 2.2
    • Firefighters 2.3
    • Social Workers 2.4
  • Problems 3
    • Corruption and Accountability 3.1
    • Discretion 3.2
    • Lack of Resources 3.3
  • Technology and Street-level Bureaucracy 4
    • Curtailment Theory 4.1
    • Enablement Theory 4.2
  • References 5
  • Sources 6


The concept of street-level bureaucracy was first coined by [1]) which embodies what Street-level bureaucracy in America. Some of the first street level bureaucrats in the nation were post office officials. The presidency of Woodrow Wilson helped to spur a large growth in Public Administration and government policy which in turn transmitted to larger sized street-level bureaucracies. However it was not until the 1950s with the baby boom that "Street level bureaucracy" as Michael Lipsky stated became as strong as a presence in society as it today.[1]

Lipsky describes street level bureaucrats as the face of policy, since these individuals interact directly with citizens.([2])The history of Street-level bureaucracy follows the history of policy development and the scope of government in America, with areas with larger populations and more government policies employing more individuals such as Chicago which employs "26,680 teachers".([2])

Due to in-depth interactions, day to day discretion, and policy interpretation Lipsky claims that "in a sense the street-level bureaucrats implicitly mediate aspects of the constitutional relationship of citizens to the state. In short, they hold the keys to a dimension of citizenship."([3]) The interpretation of the duties, scope, and responsibilities of street-level bureaucrats are still debated today, with ongoing discussion on discretion, corruption, accountability, lack of resources, and technology.

Demand for street level bureaucrats

Street-level bureaucrats are the individuals that act as liaisons between policy-makers and citizens. They are the implementors of policy that interact and communicate with the general public. Where there are growths in population, there are growths in demand for these occupations as well. The demand for these occupations will vary by region but generally, the job outlook in these careers is on the rise due to an increase in population.


In the United States' education sector there is a notable demand for teachers in numerous regions across the country. There are currently fifty-one hot spots with a demand for educators in these regions. Amongst these fifty-one hot spots, five of the regions are with an incredible need for educators in both the primary and secondary education sector. The areas of desperate need include: Las Vegas, Nevada; the Northern region of Oklahoma; Kansas City, Missouri; the Central region of Arkansas; and the Western region of Mississippi.[4]

Police Force

The demand for police officers is another occupation that will experience growth within its career sector over the next ten years. It is important to note that because urbanized and metropolitan regions are amongst the fastest growing in the United States, that is generally where the demand for these individuals will be.[5]


Firefighters are another case in protective services in which we are able to expect an increase in demand over the next decade. A seven percent increase in career outlook is to be expected by the year 2022.[6]

Social Workers

The demand for social workers is one that is above the average rate in the United States. With a general population increase social workers are needed in all areas of the career field. The demand for social workers is extremely high.[7] The national average for growth in all careers stands at eleven percent, while a projected nineteen percent increase in social work is needed to fulfill the sectors responsibility to the general public.[8]

Street-Level Bureaucrat Amount of Employees—2012 Projected Work Force—2022 Percentage Growth
Police Force 780,000 821,000 5%
Firefighters 307,000 372,300 7%
Teachers 1,361,200 1,529,100 12%
Social Workers 607,000 721,500 19%


Corruption and Accountability

Corruption in street-level bureaucracy is a violation of any of the ethical codes of conduct that have been established by the U.S. Government and its agencies. There are many such agencies specifically designed to define and interpreter what is acceptable ethical behavior and what is not.[1][9] Violation of these rules or ethical codes of conduct have repercussions that effect not only the person or agency involved, but also the general public that these street-level bureaucracies serve. Neutrality and impartiality in following policies and procedures is what is expected and most remain separate from person feelings. Here is a link to a social work case that let personal feelings override there ethical responsibility. [2][10] Accountability is the means by which these codes are upheld and to ensure moral and ethical practices within these bureaucratic agencies. There is much debate over the methodology of how exactly these agencies should be held accountable. Accountability is divided into five categories: transparency, liability, controllability, responsibility, and responsiveness.[11] Two major accountability processes are compliance based and performance based. "Traditionally, accountability has involved defining rules and procedures and then employing various means to ensure compliance with these expectations"[12] Performance based practices rely on standardized processes that measure performance in terms of output and results.[12] Yet compliance based, and performance based accountability has limitations for measuring the efficiency, effectiveness, equity, and economy of the bureaucracy. Furthermore accountability stems from a multidimensional perspective, which includes the general public the bureaucracy serves, peers and co-workers, office managers,public administrators, and elected officials.


Discretion can be defined as a component in the decision making process that determines an individual’s action or non-action.[13] Carrington divides discretion into two major components as the freedom the decision maker has to choose between different actions; and the decision to act or not act through the rules and judgment of the decision maker.[13] Michael Lipsky states street level bureaucrats have discretion because human judgment is in the nature of service work that machines could not replace.[14] Street level bureaucrats are responsible for making appropriate decisions that are appropriate for clients and their situations. Lipsky states all street level bureaucrats will confront situations in which they need to depart from service ideals in order to cope with both expectations from their jobs and the public ideal. According to Michael Lipsky the exercise of discretion among street level bureaucrats is critical in how public workers interact with citizens on a daily basis. He claims to understand these acts of discretion once must analyze the outcome of agency performance the public experiences as a combined result of agency rules and street level bureaucrats responses to unsanctioned work.[14] Lipsky said the use of discretion by street level bureaucrats can’t be removed from everyday practice due to the complexity and uncertainty of human service work. Carrington identifies the fear of power abuse as a major reason for the opposition of discretion in the arena of street level bureaucrats and its citizens. In order to control problems in discretionary action there has been a demand for control by understanding the social situations in which discretion varies.[13] Marissa Kelly also examines the use of discretion among street level bureaucrats to assert that discretion can either enhance or inhibit street level bureaucrats’ implementation of justice. She asserts that whether discretion is appropriate or not justice theories need to be further examined.[15]

Lack of Resources

Lipsky concludes the lack of resources street level bureaucrats encounter causes them to develop simplified routines within their environment that influence their everyday tasks and therefore public policy.[14] One argument is that Street Level bureaucrats are taught revised implementation skills instead of learning specific implementation resources and knowledge to implement policies effectively.[16] Hill identifies several implementation resources street level bureaucrats often lack such as; literary resources, appropriate resources on how to shape specific policies at the street level, and access to expertise and skill training to better their decision making and awareness in specific situations at the street level.[16]

Technology and Street-level Bureaucracy

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

It was first argued by Snellen that increasing technological advances (ITA) "deeply challenges [the street-level bureaucrat’s] ability to manipulate information."[14][17] 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.[14][17][18]

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.[18] Second, Snellen’s definition of the SLB’s source of power is too narrow and does not take into account other sources of discretion.[18] 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.[18] 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

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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[20] 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.[18]


  1. ^ Cooke, Scott A.; Klay, William Earle. "George Washington’s Precedents: The Institutional Legacy of the American Republic’s Founding Public Administrator". Administration & Society 2015: 75-91. Online.
  2. ^ a b Lipsky, Michael. Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1980. Print.
  3. ^ Lipksy, Michael. Street-level Bureaucracy. N.p.: n.p., 1980. Print.
  4. ^ Snodgrass, Maria. "Where We Work". Teach For America. Retrieved 2015. 
  5. ^ "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Police and Detectives". Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved January 8, 2014. 
  6. ^ "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Firefighters". Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Retrieved 8 Jan 2014. 
  7. ^ "Child and Family Social Worker". U.S. News & World Report L.P. Retrieved 2015. 
  8. ^ "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Social Workers". Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 8 Jan 2014. 
  9. ^ "" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-05-06. 
  10. ^ Inc., Great. "Deception in Social Work". Retrieved 2015-05-06. 
  11. ^ "Pathologies of Accountability: ICANN and the Challenge of "Multiple Accountabilities Disorder" - Koppell - 2005 - Public Administration Review - Wiley Online Library". Retrieved 2015-05-06. 
  12. ^ a b Jos, P.H.; Tompkins, M.E. (2004). "THE ACCOUNTABILITY PARADOX IN AN AGE OF REINVENTION: The perennial problem of preserving character and judgment". Administration & Society 36 (3): 255–281. 
  13. ^ a b c Carrington, Keith (2005). "Is There A Need for Control?". Public Administration Quarterly 29 (1): 140–161. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Lipsky, Michael (2010). Street-Level Bureaucracy. Russell Sage Foundation. 
  15. ^ Kelly, Marisa (1994). "Theories of Justice and Street-Level Discretion". Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: J-PART 4 (2): 119–140. 
  16. ^ a b Hill, Heather (2003). "Understanding Implementation: Street-Level Bureaucrats' Resources for Reform". Journal of Public Administration 13 (3): 265–282. 
  17. ^ a b Snellen, I (2002). "Electronic Governance: Implications for Citizens, Politicians and Public Servants". International Review of Administrative Sciences 68 (2): 183–198. 
  18. ^ a b c d e Buffat, Aurelien (2013). "Street-Level Bureaucracy and E-Government". Public Management Review 17 (1): 149–161. 
  19. ^ Jorna, F; Wagenaar, P (2007). "The Iron Cage Strengthened? Discretion and Digital Discipline". Public Administration 85 (1): 189–214. 
  20. ^ 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). 


  • 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
  • Maynard-Moody, S and Musheno, M, Cops, Teachers, Counselors: Stories from the Front Lines of Public Service, University of Michigan Press, 2003,
  • Also see Norma M. Riccucci, How Management Matters: Street-Level Bureaucrats and Welfare Reform. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005.
  • Mackey, Emil Robert (2008). Street-level bureaucrats and the shaping of university housing policy. Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press.
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