This is a review/reflection of Street-Level Bureaucracy : Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Spaces, first published in 1980 by Michael Lipsky (Russell Sage Foundation – New York). I have a copy of the first edition so am referring to that.
‘Street-level bureaucrats often spend their work lives in a corrupted world of service. They believe themselves to be doing the best they can under adverse circumstances, and they develop techniques to salvage service and decision-making values within the limits imposed upon them by the structure of the work’Lipsky – Street-Level Bureaucracy : Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Spaces (1980)
The aim of this book is to frame the role of the public sector employee in particular fields, where there is direct contact with members of the public, as a ‘street-level bureaucrat’. This includes social workers, obviously as that has been my focus in the reading, but also teachers, members of the police service, people working in benefits offices and many other examples of those who are responsible for putting government policy, both national and local, into action.
These groups of people have enormous impact on the outcome of policy decisions of the state as they are the ones making decisions on a day to day basis. The book looks at presenting the role of this group of ‘street-level bureaucrats’ within the role of having understanding of where and how decision-making can follow them, understanding how they work and make decisions and oversight and controls in place to guard against poor decision-making which can be discriminatory and full of individual bias, organisational structures which can concede control (not always a bad thing) but which can lead to vastly inconsistent outcomes for those who have no option but to engage with the work of street-level bureaucrats.
Lipsky published this book in the United States in 1980. While it isn’t hard for me to remember that as I read it (I have a battered, old copy of the first edition which I bought second hand!), it is important to remember the times within which he was writing, forty years ago. There are changes that need to be allowed for in terms of time as well as location. Lipsky’s background is as a Professor of Political Science. He is writing from a broad perspective and expertise around policy and policy-making (because that’s exactly what politics is). His view is very much from the ‘how is policy implemented’. Reading this, as a ‘street-level bureaucrat’ adds another layer through which to analyse the role we play and the power we have in nipping at the heels of poor policy-making or even how we can dissemble the best intentions of good policy making, in practice.
While it is a classic in the field, it is one I picked up with an expectation of duty rather than enjoyment. I felt a sense of guilt in the amount of discovery I made because it is a 40 year old text. It is not a difficult read. It is written in a style that does not need an understanding of someone who is well-tuned to the language and style of academia.
The usefulness of the premise and content, reflects the thought that I have attributed to it. Lipsky considers the impact of street-level decision-making by the individual in one of those roles who need to be both thoughtful and autonomous enough to make differential decisions on an individual basis yet simultaneously adhere to guidance, eligibility criteria and standards which allow for consistent implementation of policy in relation to the citizen who is dependent on them.
He has space to differentiate between the role of the street-level bureaucrat who is in direct contact with citizens, and the role of the management and organisation within the processes of allocating resources, oversight of practitioners and, in a particularly pertinent chapter, which doesn’t seem to have aged, the role of goals and performance measures in guiding practice.
Lipsky contends that the place of goals, whether organisational or relating to individual workers, will always have some ambiguity and fuzziness because working with people is different to working with things. As he says
The ability of street-level bureaucrats to treat people as individuals is significantly compromised by the needs of the organizations to process work quickly using resources at its disposalLipsky – Street-Level Bureaucracy : Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Spaces (1980) p44
Lipsky covers the challenges faced as all those working in these public facing roles consider themselves to be ‘doing their best’ when that effort itself may need to be rationed. Sure, advocacy can be a key part of the role across the board, but advocacy as a street-level bureaucrat, can, he argues, focus on work with an individual to the detriment of other individuals because the time and resources available to the practitioner are rationed and some people may need more time. How are the decisions made about where priorities will lie? This is the power of the street-level bureaucrat who possesses, what Lipsky describes as ‘unidirectional power’ in relation to members of the public using their services.
The book is far more wide-ranging that I’ve been able to give credit but I was struck by the amount the spoke to me having worked in these roles for over 20 years. Lipsky has enabled me to place my practice as a social worker in a far broader context of public functions and professional roles including teaching, prison officers, police and benefits administrators, including call centre personnel – although he doesn’t refer to them, but in an updated version, they would be the people making some of the immediate responses and being the face of the government vis a vis the individual.
In terms of challenges faced, the context of the book being written 40 years ago when professions and semi-professions referred to would operate in different ways, probably needs a different focus. As public sector work is increasingly farmed out, and I am thinking of probation services, and prison services as well as social services, the element of profit-making hasn’t been taken into account in terms of the pressures of work as a street-level bureaucrat in the 2020s.
Lipsky is writing from an outsider context as well. I don’t see this as a disadvantage, rather an as a vantage point which differs. Indeed, it can be both positive and helpful to draw on expertise from a range of areas. One of the most interesting aspects for me has been to draw parallels that he did, with other public service professions.
Use in practice
When I read, I always read within the context of trying to understand what I have read that will change my practice as a result of the reading. Of course, not everything does.
With this, it was about drawing links with other public-service professions as a ‘street-level bureaucrat’ and draw out the similarities between social work and policing, teaching etc which are subject to continual policy changes dependent on which way the political climate blows. This is why it is useful to read from the perspective of political science rather than social work specifically.
Social work is politics and vice versa but politics is action. Every decision taken to prioritise one piece of work, or patient (because I work in a hospital), means that resources including time, may be limited to another. This does not mean these are ‘wrong’ decisions, but they are decisions and it is right that we should be accountable. In thinking about this book, and it’s message, it makes me consider who is actually holding me accountable. It might be the organisation or management through supervision but that is dependent on my interpretation and perspective on framing the work I do.
In a previous job, when we were working to Fair Access to Care Services (FACS) criteria, I used to joke that I could write an assessment to get anyone to meet ‘substantial’ need. And honestly, I pretty much could, because it was about how to wrote and interpreted criteria. Was it ethical though? Did it mean other people weren’t getting services? Individually, I didn’t see this because I am not an organisation. My role was to advocate for those I was allocated to.
I was also particularly struck by the role that unconscious bias can take in the decision-making at an individual level and the role that perception including race, gender, language and accent, even might take on assumptions that are built into the daily decisions made. While I don’t think I choose to discriminate, I work in a context of institutionalised racism and discriminations which may well be internalised so being aware of the impact and actively making decisions to own any internal prejudices is key to me challenging those assumptions and practices myself.
Will the book change the way I practice? I don’t know if it will change my decision-making but it will make me more aware of the context in which my decision-making takes place.
Coming at one a well-recognised and classic text, has been a useful refresh of some of the ideas I had germinating in my head for a while. It has been particularly useful to read the book in the context of broader views of professional groups beyond health and social care, where most of my reading has been located to date, and also beyond the UK.
Lipsky notes that people who have most contact with street-level bureaucrats are more likely to be poorer and have more services imposed on them. It is a responsibility, in all these areas, to own that and try to work within it.
I’d definitely recommend it if you are looking to broaden the perspective of the environment in which we work, bearing in mind the age of the text. I understand there is a second edition which has some updates and may well try and track it down.