Bernardo Zacka


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

Cover Interview of April 29, 2018

The wide angle

We are constantly thinking about what it is that the state ought to do—what sorts of policies it should pursue. But policy implementation gives rise to another, equally important question: the question of how the state ought to interact with citizens when pursuing such policies. What standards should the state uphold when interacting with those who are subject to its authority?

The first question (the what of policy) is settled by and large in legislative chambers. The second question (the how of implementation) is resolved in bureaucratic agencies within the framework provided by administrative law.

Consider any policy selected through democratic procedures. Regardless of its content, its implementation will have to respond to a further set of normative demands. At the very minimum, we would want the policy to be enacted in a way that is efficient, fair, responsive to the needs of individual citizens, and respectful of them.

How to interpret these various demands, how to apply them to specific cases, and how to resolve conflicts that arise between them are normative challenges that are intrinsic to implementation. These are the sorts of challenges that street-level bureaucrats must contend with.

Seen in this light, bureaucracy is not just an instrument for the execution of public policy, but a crucible in which some of our abstract value commitments are given practical countenance and the tensions between them worked out. Any normative theory of the democratic state that did not engage with implementation would thus remain incomplete.