Project

Street-Level Bureaucracy

Goal: This ongoing research project focuses on the issue of street-level bureaucrats and their role in public policy processes. Specifically, I am interested in determining how and why the relationship between managers, frontline workers and clients has changed in an era of markets, managerialism, and choice.

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Project log

Nissim Cohen
added a research item
Unbiased conduct is an essential part of the social contract between the state and its citizens. Yet, when tasked with settling disputes between citizens and other state officials, are public administrators truly impartial in their resolutions? Such a question is vital for street-level bureaucrats whom the public perceives as the face of governance. This study investigates the relations between the pro-citizen tendencies in street-level bureaucrats' resolutions, their internal appealability, and the discretionary space under which they are made. Using quantitative analysis of real-world lower-court rulings in Israeli tax disputes between 1980 and 2021, the research findings indicate that unregulated expansion of street-level bureaucrats' discretionary space relates to favoring the state’s arguments in their resolutions and may impair procedural fairness. The findings also imply that regulation promoting citizens' right to appeal such resolutions within their agency, can increase street-level bureaucrats' pro-citizen tendencies and potentially counteract such outcomes.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
How does the marketization of social service provision impact the practices of street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) towards their clients? To explore this question, we compare the markets for ambulatory long-term care for the elderly in Germany and Israel, which differ in the latitude of choice offered to clients and the intensity of state regulation. Based on 52 qualitative interviews with SLBs and managers of care providers, our study shows that in both countries, the institutional contexts play a significant role in shaping SLB practices. We found that SLBs and managers in Israel engage in entrepreneurial behavior, whereas their German counterparts adopt administrative practices. By identifying these tendencies as responses to the respective welfare market characteristics, the article makes an important contribution to the field of comparative SLB research and furthers our understanding of the broader implications of the marketization of welfare services.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
This article presents the findings of an exploratory study examining the relationships between street-level bureaucrats’ trust in their peers, managers, and the institution they belong to, and their willingness to endanger their own lives for the public. We build on previous administrative and behavioral theory to present a model of these relationships. Using a survey of 211 police officers in Israel, our findings demonstrate the important role of trust in understanding the willingness of civil servants to risk their lives for citizens. We also identify additional factors that may be related to their willingness to take this risk and the types of clients for whom they are less or more willing to do so. We discuss the normative elements related to these findings and suggest fruitful future directions for study.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
Does political rhetoric play a role in street-level bureaucrats policy implementation? If so, how? We examine this question through in-depth semi-structured interviews with 31 Israeli LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) teachers. Our findings demonstrate that when politicians express anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that contradicts the ideological position of these street-level bureaucrats, the latter implement policies that run counter to the stated positions of the former. Our study contributes to the implementation literature by highlighting the implications of political rhetoric in the execution of bottom-up policies. It illustrates that politicians’ words have power, which paradoxically motivates street-level bureaucrats to react by subverting them.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
Studies of representative bureaucracy have shown how minority groups are often underrepresented in public agencies. They also indicate that the match between the backgrounds of the bureaucrats and their clients has a strong effect on minority groups. Less attention has been devoted to the question of what happens when street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) from a minority group serve clients in organizations all of whose clients belong to the same minority group as the SLBs. How do they behave when the policies they must implement are inconsistent with their collective moral values? What dilemmas do they experience, and how do they address them? We explore these questions using the case of Arab civics teachers in Arab schools in Israel, organizations with a homogeneous work environment of minorities. Our findings contribute to the existing literature by emphasizing the importance of the organizational context. In a homogeneous work environment, it is easier for SLBs to deviate from formal policy. While they must still consider “disobeying costs” imposed by the state, the organizational mixture strengthens the legitimacy among clients, colleagues and direct managers to deviate from official public policy.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
We explore the conditions under which informal collaborations between street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) emerge and the motivations for them. From our analysis of 68 interviews with law enforcement officers from 26 law enforcement agencies in a large metropolitan area in Texas, we identified four themes, representing a mix of altruistic and self-interest considerations: 1) ineffective formal collaboration practices, 2) personal and institutional trust, 3) the balance of power between the collaborators, and 4) a supportive management. We contribute to the literature by demonstrating how informal ‘bottom-up’ practices allow SLBs to overcome the constraining ‘jurisdictional divide’ and achieve better work outcomes.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
Trust is the “glue” connecting state and society and particularly relevant to how front-line workers, who are the face of public administration vis-à-vis citizens, implement policy. Therefore, it is important to examine how front-line workers’ absence of trust in regulators influences the ways they cope with their clients. Our study investigates this question empirically through interviews and focus groups with 80 Israeli social service providers. Our results show that front-line workers’ distrust in regulators is a product of four factors: perceived lack of protection, clash of values, politicization in implementation processes, and regulators’ ‘disconnection’ from the field. It leads them to adopt two coping strategies: acts of self-protection and deviation from formal policy. A further derivative is their turnover intention.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
Can policy entrepreneurship training affect policy entrepreneurship behavior among street-level bureaucrats? The current research aims to expand our understanding of how and when street-level bureaucrats might use entrepreneurial strategies to directly influence policy design. We suggest that managers and decision makers can increase street-level bureaucrats’ willingness and ability to act as policy entrepreneurs through specific training. To test this argument, we conducted a randomized field experiment with 158 nurses in a community-based network of maternal and child healthcare clinics in Israel. Our findings suggest that policy entrepreneurship training has a significant positive effect on street-level policy entrepreneurship behavior. We also find that it reduces the need of street level bureaucrats to have policy entrepreneurship self-efficacy in order to engage in policy entrepreneurship behavior. We discuss our findings in detail, proposing new avenues for research in theory and practice.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
Can street-level bureaucrats’ exercise of discretion lead to clients’ dissatisfaction with policy implementation? If so, under what conditions could such disaffection lead to the alternative supply of public services? Building on Albert Hirschman’s model of exit, voice, and loyalty, this article contributes to the literature by pointing to street-level bureaucrats’ exercise of discretion as influencing citizens’ dissatisfaction with policy implementation. We identify three main elements—personal, organizational, and environmental—influencing discretion informally, causing clients’ dissatisfaction. We also point to a combination of three conditions triggering the creation of an alternative supply of services: (1) citizens’ dissatisfaction with policy implementation; (2) street-level bureaucrats’ monopoly over policy implementation because only one supplier exists; and (3) clients’ perceptions of participation channels as blocked. Using a qualitative case study approach, we test our claims by analyzing the case of Israeli marriage registrars. We demonstrate how Israeli citizens’ dissatisfaction with how government bureaucrats implement marriage regulations led to the creation of the Tzohar non-governmental organization that provides alternative marriage services. Points for practitioners In situations in which street-level bureaucrats have a monopoly over policy implementation and citizens feel they cannot exercise their voice about that implementation, their dissatisfaction with how street-level bureaucrats use their discretion in implementing the policy may eventually lead to the creation of alternative sources of public services.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
What are the implications of governmental response to crises for street-level implementation? The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to compare the formal role that decision-makers require of street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) during a crisis to normal conditions. Textual analysis of 36 legislative documents and emergency regulations in Israel indicates that the additional duties assigned to police officers, teachers, and physicians reflect three inter-related changes in street-level implementation: increased policy ambiguity, higher risk exposure, and expanded discretion. Decision-makers’ expectations of SLBs during a crisis highlight the inherent limit of policy-as-written to account for the operational, action-imperative essence of on-the-ground service delivery.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
According to public management literature, trust has a positive influence on behavior. Why, then, do street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) appear to favor clients whom they do not trust, and give less attention to those they do trust? Do organizational conditions play a role in this dynamic? We investigate these issues as they affect Israeli social services providers. Our study improves our understanding of trust as a factor in public service delivery. When SLBs operate in an unsupportive environment, they prioritize clients whom they distrust, bending or breaking rules for them, yet ration services to clients whom they trust.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
Are street-level bureaucrats more willing to sacrifice their own self-interests to meet the needs of their clients when they are off duty or on duty? If the former is the case, what does that finding tell us about their work environment? Using the social value orientation paradigm in a mixed effects experimental design, we found that Israeli police officers demonstrated greater pro-social inclinations off duty compared to on duty. Given our findings, we suggest the possibility that the organization’s constraints and culture may paradoxically reduce street-level bureaucrats' real social value orientations and increase the promotion of their own self-interests when they are on duty. Keywords: Street-level bureaucrats; Discretion; Social value orientation; Organizational constraints and culture; Off duty. Evidence for practice • Using an experiment, we found that police officers demonstrate more willingness to sacrifice their own interests to promote citizens' needs off duty compared to on duty. • We also found that the more years on the force police officers have, the less they demonstrate this pro-social orientation. • Our findings imply that, paradoxically, the organizational environment reduces police officers’ social value orientation when they are on duty. • We discuss the possibility that manager’s imposition of extensive external rules and incentives may crowd out their subordinates’ internal pro-social tendencies.
Nissim Cohen
added a research item
What factors influence police officers’ willingness to risk themselves for others? Police officers are street-level bureaucrats, who are not only given the mandate to use deadly force in order to keep public order, but also risk their most important resource—their lives—to protect society. We suggest three factors that prompt police officers to risk their lives: individual characteristics (a desire to gain respect and recognition, and testing one’s courage, ideology and personality), organizational conditions (expectations of peers and supervisors, promotion opportunities), and environmental context (a hostile working environment and the importance of public opinion to them). Using an abductive approach combined with a triangulated qualitative method, our findings indicate that personal characteristics are indeed important, but so too are organizational conditions and environmental context. The practical insight, therefore, is that decision makers can, in various formal and informal ways, influence street-level bureaucrats’ behavior. Here, the interactions between managers, workers and clients are a crucial element. Summary at a glance: What factors influence police officers’ willingness to risk themselves for others? We suggest three main factors that prompt police officers to risk their lives for others: individual, organizational and environmental. Our findings suggest that street-level bureaucrats’ willingness to risk their lives for others is not only rooted in the characteristics of the individuals. It also develops from work experience and interactions with managers and the environment. Keywords: Street-Level Bureaucrats; Discretion; Life-Risking; Israel; Police
Nissim Cohen
added a project goal
This ongoing research project focuses on the issue of street-level bureaucrats and their role in public policy processes. Specifically, I am interested in determining how and why the relationship between managers, frontline workers and clients has changed in an era of markets, managerialism, and choice.