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.
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.
As a work of political theory, When the State Meets the Street is unusual in that it combines normative reasoning with ethnographic fieldwork. Political theory is often criticized for operating at too high a level of abstraction, specifying ideals of justice or democracy that bear little relation to the political world in which we live. I believe that a turn to ethnography can serve to anchor a more grounded approach, situating philosophical reasoning within a more realistic understanding of our political institutions.
Political theory should look to ethnography not just for additional context or meaning or texture, but also to uncover new normative questions that are worth asking.
Seen from a distance, it may seem like all that happens when the state meets the street is the application of legal directives. Seen from up close, however, one starts noticing that the process is far more indeterminate and that the individuals involved have real discretion. Ethnography thickens the plot.
With that, a new terrain for normative reflection opens up. What values should street-level bureaucrats be sensitive to when wielding their discretion? How can we justify that discretion and reconcile it with the tenets of democratic government? How can we hold them accountable?
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?
Bernardo Zacka is a Junior Research Fellow in political theory at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He will be starting as an assistant professor of political science at MIT in September 2018.