Bernardo Zacka


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

Cover Interview of April 29, 2018


Street-level bureaucrats are the first to take the blame when things go wrong. We sometimes forget, however, that the constraints they operate under are largely of our own making. They reflect the amount of resources that we, as a democratic public, have chosen to devote to public services.

Describing what happens when the state meets the street is like holding a mirror to ourselves as a polity. If we do not like what we see, we need to reconsider our own values and priorities.

This provides us with a different starting point for reflecting on democratic politics. We usually think first about what laws and policies we should have, and only then about how to implement them. Once we know what we want the state to do, we can figure out how to do it.

But what if we flipped things around—thinking first about how we would want the state and its officials to interact with citizens and working our way back, from there, to questions of management style, institutional design, and policy choice?