Bernardo Zacka


On his book When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency

Cover Interview of April 29, 2018

In a nutshell

When we encounter the state, we do not meet with the text of the law but with a particular person—a case manager at a welfare office, a frontline worker at the DMV, a local counselor, or perhaps a law enforcement officer. These workers are known as street-level bureaucrats, and their unflattering reputation precedes them. Cold, distant, and unconcerned, they are often described as automata who merely apply rules.

And yet the nature of everyday work at the frontlines of public service is not quite what it seems from the outside. It is neither as simple, repetitive, nor rule-governed as one might believe. Combining political theory with eight months of ethnographic fieldwork in an anti-poverty agency in the Northeastern United States, I try to shed light on what it is like to be the face of a chronically under-staffed and under-resourced state. What does the job do to you as a moral person?

Public service agencies are responsible for implementing public policy. The directives they inherit, however, are often vague, ambiguous, and conflicting. This indeterminacy trickles all the way down to the frontlines of public service, leaving street-level bureaucrats with a considerable margin of discretion.

In using that discretion, we expect such bureaucrats—as agents of the democratic state—to remain sensitive to a plurality of values that are central to our democratic political culture. They must be efficient in the provision of services; fair in dealing with clients; responsive to the needs of particular individuals; and respectful of them.

Taken individually, each of these demands is sensible. Put together, however, they often yield conflicting guidance, especially when resources are scarce. Attending to one frequently means falling short on others. This gives rise to endless moral dilemmas.

Do you listen attentively when a client opens up about a sensitive personal problem, or do you cut their story short because the waiting room is full and the clock is ticking fast? Do you go out of your way to assist a particularly disadvantaged client, or do you only offer a level of service you can realistically replicate for all?

With the lives and dignity of vulnerable clients in the balance, these dilemmas are not just cognitively demanding, but emotionally draining too. It’s hard not to agonize over them and not to feel complicit in the shortcomings of the system one embodies.

Over time, the psychological pressure builds and, if left unchecked, takes its toll. Some street-level bureaucrats put up with it by compartmentalizing. Others burn out. I argue that a great many, however, respond just as social psychologists would have us expect: through cognitive distortions that simplify the moral landscape and reduce the sense of conflict they experience.

Since they cannot live up to the full demands of the role, street-level bureaucrats are driven, often unconsciously, to narrow their understanding of these demands so as to be able to live up to them. They commit themselves to one dimension of the role at the expense of others. Moral specialization emerges as a cop­ing response to the pressures of everyday work.

We thus find ourselves in a predicament. The proper implementation of public policy in a democratic context depends on street-level bureaucrat’s capacity to remain attuned to a plurality of values, yet the nature of everyday work at the frontlines of public service rewards narrow specialization.

How does this predicament come about? What can we do to remedy it? These are the questions I take up in When the State Meets the Street.