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The challenge of managing street-level discretion lies at the heart of the search for strategies of administrative oversight and control. How can management promote accountability without deadening responsiveness and undermining the application of professional judgment on which management also depends? This article reconsiders the problem of accountability from a street-level perspective.First, it reviews the literature on implementation, street-level bureaucracy, and new public management in order to raise questions about the limitations of current approaches to accountability, including new public management solutions that rely on performance measurement. Second, it makes the case for a street-level approach to accountability and illustrates how it can be used to reveal critical dimensions of organizational practice that are not captured by other means. Finally, issues of street-level practice are placed in broader perspective, as part of an on-going global search for ways to advance transparency and accountability in social provision.
Intl Journal of Public Administration, 31: 317–336, 2008
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN 0190-0692 print / 1532-4265 online
DOI: 10.1080/01900690701590587
LPAD0190-06921532-4265Intl Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 31, No. 3, December 2007: pp. 1–35Intl Journal of Public Administration
Accountability in Street-Level Organizations
Accoun tability in Street-Lev el Bureaucr aciesBrodkin
Evelyn Z. Brodkin
School of Social Service Administration,
The University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Abstract: The challenge of managing street-level discretion lies at the heart of the
search for strategies of administrative oversight and control. How can management
promote accountability without deadening responsiveness and undermining the
application of professional judgment on which management also depends? This article
reconsiders the problem of accountability from a street-level perspective.
First, it reviews the literature on implementation, street-level bureaucracy, and
new public management in order to raise questions about the limitations of current
approaches to accountability, including new public management solutions that rely on
performance measurement. Second, it makes the case for a street-level approach to
accountability and illustrates how it can be used to reveal critical dimensions of organi-
zational practice that are not captured by other means. Finally, issues of street-level
practice are placed in broader perspective, as part of an on-going global search for
ways to advance transparency and accountability in social provision.
Keywords: accountability, performance measurement, public management, street-
level bureaucracy
Accountability is an essential requirement of public management in the demo-
cratic state. Yet, all too often, bureaucratic discretion is the nemesis of account-
ability. The challenge of managing street-level discretion lies at the heart of the
continuing search for strategies of administrative oversight and control that can
promote accountability without deadening responsiveness and undermining the
application of professional judgment on which management also depends.
In the case of social welfare agencies, where discretion is a necessary and
even desirable part of the caseworker-client interaction, public management
The author acknowledges research support from the National Science Foundation
(#9730821), the Open Society Institute, and the Ford Foundation.
Address correspondence to Evelyn Z. Brodkin, Associate Professor, School of
Social Service Administration, The University of Chicago, 969 E. 60
St., Chicago,
IL 60637, USA; E-mail:
318 Brodkin
faces an especially difficult test. How can managers know what takes place in
the day-to-day activities of “street-level bureaucrats,” what occurs at the inter-
stices of formal rules and informal practices, and what this means for the
provision of social goods and services? How well do available management
tools address accountability at the street-level?
This article reconsiders the problem of accountability from a street-level
perspective. From this vantage point, it appears that common accountability
measures are too crude to capture the complex realities of informal practice.
Quantitative measures of inputs and outputs tend to reconstruct policy in its
own terms rather than illuminate the qualitative content of what bureaucrats
do and how they “make” policy on their own terms. Even advanced efforts to
improve accountability by applying New Public Management (NPM) tech-
niques of performance measurement and “pay for performance” contracting,
at times, may do more to provide the appearance of accountability than
Admittedly, solutions to these difficulties are hard to invent. In the
absence of useful alternatives, practitioners may feel compelled to adopt available
strategies even if they oversimplify street-level practice. Given policies and
programs that cannot readily be made self-executing, virtually eliminating dis-
cretion, the need for better accountability strategies will remain. This article
brings the perspective of street-level research to the pursuit of better
It begins with a review of the literature on implementation, street-level
bureaucracy, and new public management in order to raise questions about the
limitations of current approaches to accountability. As part this review, it
raises doubts about new public management solutions that rely on perfor-
mance measurement as a means to secure accountability. Next, it makes the
case for a street-level approach to accountability and illustrates how it can be
used to reveal critical dimensions of organizational practice that are not
captured by other means. Finally, the issues examined here are placed in
broader perspective, as part of an international search for ways to improve
transparency and accountability in social provision.
Untangling complex issues of organizational practice and accountability have
been fundamental to the field of implementation research in the United States.
A brief review of this literature highlights its relevance to the quest for
accountability and the salience of a street-level view. The field of implemen-
tation research initially developed out of two related concerns. The first was
normative, grounded in the constitutional notion of policymaking as the prov-
ince of the legislative branch. The underlying assumption was essentially
Weberian. Simply put, legislators, as policymakers, should authoritatively
Accountability in Street-Level Bureaucracies 319
determine the “big” questions of national goals, and the bureaucracy should
devise the means to put policy goals into practice. Bureaucratic failure to do
its job constituted, in effect, a failure of democratic authority. Second,
implementation research responded to a fundamentally practical concern.
It seemed that good policy ideas often foundered on the rocky shoals of
administration. How to prevent administrative shipwrecks?
The rise of a more socially activist American government in the 1960s
and 1970s challenged the administrative capacity of the state. An emergent
literature documented growing frustration at the apparent noncompliance of
government agencies with policy mandates. In one of the first implementation
analyses, Martha Derthick
described how lower levels of government frus-
trated federal housing goals even in the face of strong presidential leadership,
clear fiscal incentives, and relatively abundant federal resources and commit-
ment. Other studies documented the more daunting (and more common) task
of advancing federal policy under less ideal circumstances, where opportuni-
ties for bureaucratic confusion, creative “gaming” for federal dollars, and
even resistance bedeviled implementation. In practice, it seemed that the
“goodness” of policy ideas encountered the “badness” of bureaucracy with
disheartening frequency.
American programs created under the rubric of the War on Poverty and
the Great Society offered rich research fodder for analysts seeking examples
of good ideas gone astray. Who was to blame? All too often, the finger
pointed to public bureaucracies – federal, state, and local — as the graveyard
of good intentions. This perspective was vividly expressed in Pressman and
Wildavsky’s seminal volume Implementation, notably subtitled: How great
expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland; or, why it’s amazing that
federal programs work at all, this being a saga of the Economic Development
Administration as told by two sympathetic observers who seek to build morals
on a foundation of ruined hopes.
Between “great expectations” and “ruined
hopes” lay the uncharted terrain of implementation, the so-called “black box”
into which policy ideas disappeared only to re-emerge in unrecognizable
form, if at all.
The Implementation Perspective Revisited
The issues raised in this literature were revealing. The translation of policy
ideas into practical action could not simply be referred to subunits of government
and administrative agencies with orders given and fingers crossed. It required
deeper understanding of implementing agencies and how they worked. The
central problem for analysis was to determine how public bureaucracies could
be made to comply with legislative intent and put policy ideas into action.
Underlying the quest for understanding was the normative assumption of a
policy hierarchy that demanded bureaucratic allegiance to legislative aims,
320 Brodkin
that is, it demanded hierarchical accountability. The bureaucracy’s job was to
bring “neutral competence” to the task of policy delivery and, thereby, secure
accountability. But that vision did not square with ample evidence of bureaucratic
autonomy and discretion often operating at cross-purposes to political authority.
The compliance model that informed the first wave of implementation
research generally sought to identify what interfered with the linear progress
of policy as it made its way from legislation to realization.
A rich and varied set of studies applying this model began to shine light
into the “black box,” creating a picture of organizational processes that were
highly complex, subject to the idiosyncracies of leaders and “the moment,”
and confounding to those who would attempt to assert authority over far-flung
Some of these studies produced common sense — if politi-
cally improbable — advice, for example, to keep policy simple, set clear
objectives, or avoid “complex joint action.” Other advice was hopeful, but
difficult to follow, suggesting, for example, that implementation would bene-
fit from good leadership and problem-fixers.
These studies — and the advice they produced — were consistent with
normative notions of an authoritative policy hierarchy and directed toward
achieving greater allegiance between policymaking and policy delivery.
However, the assumptions embedded in the compliance model seemed
increasingly doubtful. Perhaps legislated policy should be authoritative, but
what if it wasn’t? What justified the “great expectations” of policy protago-
nists and their corresponding dismay at the bureaucracies that “dashed their
hopes”? If bureaucracies were the graveyard of good intentions, were they the
cause of death or simply its location?
These doubts pointed to two critical problems with the compliance
perspective as a guide to research. First, its hierarchical premise requires some
degree of policy definitiveness. Yet, both the literature on American legisla-
tive policymaking and ordinary experience indicate that policy is often replete
with ambiguity, conflicting objectives, and uncertainty. Paradoxically, while
the emerging field of implementation searched for bureaucratic deviance from
legislative authority, political scientists were documenting and, at times,
lamenting the failure of U.S. institutions to provide authoritative lawmaking.
Analyses of legislative policymaking revealed how, in a decentralized, two-
party state it is strategic to oversimplify problems, overstate solutions, and
mask competing objectives in order to build a legislative majority. Unfortu-
nately, successful coalition-building strategies often produce policies better
geared to political credit-claiming and blame-avoiding than to successful
implementation. Those policies that survive the legislative fray tend to be
creatures of compromise in which policy inconsistencies, ambiguities, and
silences constitute a necessary price for passage.
Consequently, it seems too great an analytic leap to impute “authority” to
legislated policy. Instead, it becomes apparent that implementation difficulties
emerge, in part, out of the dilemmas of policymaking. Oversimplifying
Accountability in Street-Level Bureaucracies 321
problems, overpromising solutions, and achieving compromise by blurring
policy goals are all-too familiar tactics for legislative “success.” As analysts
have pointed out, rational political actors have incentives to maximize credit-
claiming at the lowest political and fiscal cost, even if that means that organi-
zational resources will be too limited and expectations too high.
This suggests a second problem with the compliance perspective, namely,
that implementation problems cannot readily be separated from problems of
legislative politics, especially in the U.S. case. As Lowi has pointedly
observed: “ . . . typical American politicians displace and defer and delegate
conflict where possible,” preferring to delegate its resolution “as far down the
line as possible.”
The task of implementing bureaucracies in a decentralized
state may be manifestly one of compliance, but functionally the burden is far
greater. In the course of converting policy into administrative practices, street-
level agencies must, in a practical sense, choose among conflicting objectives
and specify abstract policy elements. Consequently, both implementation and
choices of who will be accountable for what and how must be understood as
far more than a technical administrative enterprise. These choices (whether
made explicitly or indirectly through organizational practices) should be
understood as the continuation of policy politics by other means.
The Street-Level Perspective Revisited
Street-level research emerged out of the gap between the normative assump-
tions of the compliance model and growing evidence of policy indeterminacy
and bureaucratic autonomy. If formal policy did not account for the actions of
implementing organizations, what did? Researchers employed a variety of
analytic perspectives to examine policy delivery as structured within complex
organizational systems.
A major contribution to this second wave was Michael Lipsky’s seminal
book, Street-Level Bureaucracy,
which provided the theoretical template for
a research approach that embraced the ambiguities and inconsistencies of
legislated social policy, creating an environment in which bureaucratic discretion
could flourish. Lipsky’s approach virtually reversed the normative premises of
a policy hierarchy. He contended that under certain circumstances, it was
analytically useful to regard those bureaucrats at the “bottom” of the ladder as
“policymakers.” According to Lipsky, lower-level bureaucrats effectively
“make” policy when formal statutes are ambiguous or internally contradictory,
policy implementation requires discretionary decision-making at the point of
delivery, and the routine activities of front-line workers can be neither fully
monitored nor controlled. Lipsky took particular interest in large, public
bureaucracies and the mass production of human services under conditions of
limited resources and virtually unlimited demand.
322 Brodkin
The street-level bureaucracy model directed attention to the ways in
which policy deliverers actually worked. It sought to understand the world of
the lower-level bureaucrat as one in which tensions between management
objectives, client demands, and bureaucratic interests were played out.
It offered a different view of the policy process, one created from inside the
agencies charged with policy delivery. The analytic challenge was to investi-
gate the nature of “policy-as-produced” and the factors shaping its production.
Liberated from the deeply-held myth of hierarchy, analysts could reevaluate
practices that might seem on their face to be deviant and the product of willful
obstruction, indifference, or sheer incompetence in order to understand how
lower-level bureaucrats responded to the structural logic of street-level
One practical implication of this approach was that recommendations to
improve “command and control” seemed both less likely to succeed and, in
some measure, undesirable. If policy couldn’t be made simpler – or certainly
simple enough to be regimented — then it made sense analytically to recognize
discretion as intrinsic and necessary to policy delivery. That recognition
prompted a search for alternative strategies that assumed discretion, as in the
case of Richard Elmore’s
ingenious strategy of “backward mapping” that
built implementation plans from the bottom up and sought to marshall lower-
level discretion as a constructive element of policy delivery.
To some extent, this view begs questions of accountability that arise
when one does not assume that goals are unilateral or authoritative. If, as dis-
cussed, goal conflict and ambiguity are embedded in many social policies, that
raises new questions about precisely what organizations should be held
accountable for and to whom they should be accountable (i.e., managers, polit-
ical officials, the general public, agency clients, etc.). It is, perhaps, a conve-
nient fiction of the rhetoric of accountability to assume that it is self-evident to
whom organizations are accountable or that there is a single “public interest.”
In contrast, as Romzek and Johnston acknowledge,
“one challenge that
accountability poses for public mangers is the presence of multiple, competing,
and shifting performance expectations held by diverse, legitimate, and often
conflicting sources of expectations . . . .”
In short, conflicts over goals and
interests embedded in policy substantially complicate accountability.
The analytic solution to this problem is somewhat easier to address than
the political one. To the extent that the politics of social policymaking
precludes goal clarity, then analysis must embrace this ambiguity. This means
departing from standard implementation research, which generally begins
with formal policy, selectively derives goals from it, and then examines if they
were met. The alternative approach offered here begins, not at the policy
level, but at the organizational-level, examining what they do in street-level
practice, why, and what these practices produce. In effect, it treats “policy” as
uncertain and inductively determines policy’s content based on an analysis of
street-level practices. Applied street-level theory, used in this way, brings
Accountability in Street-Level Bureaucracies 323
greater transparency to organizational practices and supports management by
identifying how discretion is exercised and systemically assessing factors that
influence it. This assessment of key factors has the practical benefit of
identifying points of leverage for changing street-level practice.
New Public Management Revisited
NPM strategies for improving accountability can be seen as emerging from a
shared critique of “command and control” management. Rather than specify
rules and process regulation, performance measurement and “pay for perfor-
mance” incentives in contracting arrangements take an indirect approach. To
oversimplify, they specify what organizations are to produce without detailing
how they are to do it. In a sense, NPM appreciates discretion as a necessary
part of policy delivery. It assumes that products and incentives can be
carefully aligned so that benign uses of discretion will be encouraged and
malign uses discouraged. The difficulty here is that neither specification nor
alignment is easily achieved, especially in the case of social service provision.
This is more than a problem of degree, as there is more at stake than whether
performance can be optimized or even satisficed. In practice, design flaws in
performance measurement may have the unintended consequence of distorting
or even undermining organizational performance. As this review will show,
they also may obscure, rather than reveal, significant aspects of maladminis-
tration. When this occurs, both transparency and accountability suffer.
Some of the difficulties of crafting performance measures, especially in
social service provision, have received much attention.
For example, stud-
ies have shown that performance measures tend to selectively identify aspects
of organizational practice or outcomes, effectively operationalizing some
goals while effectively ignoring others, too often the goals of clients.
study of public managers in the U.K. found that “many public organizations
favour measures of performance that emphasise efficiency and which meet the
requirements of institutional legitimacy, rather than the interests of the citizen
or client.”
The study’s survey of public managers indicated that “clients are
far less important (than higher level government officials) in influencing the
installation of performance measurements.” In addition, performance
measures may badly skew incentives, leading to distortions such as creaming,
goal displacement, and so forth.
Reliance on readily measurable dimen-
sions of performance exacerbates these problems when they leave critical
dimensions of performance “unseen.”
Street-level studies of service delivery offer evidence of NPM strategies
gone awry. They show, for example, how quantitative performance standards
for placement of welfare recipients into various categories of “work activities”
skew lower-level incentives toward “making the numbers” with little regard
for how they do it.
Among the significant lessons to be learned from
324 Brodkin
street-level studies is that performance measures organized around proforma
categories of activities cannot reveal whether the “right” people were placed
in the “right” programs nor what they received as “training” or “education”
when they got there. Nor do measures that are limited to administrative cate-
gories reveal whether categorical labels were correctly applied or whether
potential beneficiaries were wrongly excluded. Generally, performance
measures are too rudimentary to capture these crucial, but qualitative aspects
of practice.
Moreover, performance measures that variously set quotas for case
processing, participation, or placements can do more harm than good when
they create incentives for street-level bureaucrats to take processing short-cuts
or exclusionary practices. Yet, these types of organizational practices have
been made visible through street-level studies that have illuminated often-subtle,
but pervasive, exclusionary practices of administrative “discouragement,”
among them, tangling citizens in red tape, excessive proceduralism, malad-
ministration, and cumbersome error correction processes.
routine measurement of take-up rates among eligible populations might pro-
vide an indication that these kinds of practices are at work. But, in U.S. social
programs, they are infrequently used.
Street-level research on U.S. child welfare services also shows the
perverse effects of performance-based accountability strategies. Caseworkers,
whose performance depends on completing “permanency plans” to move children
out of temporary foster care, have little time or incentive to work with parents
toward family reunification. One study showed that although a numbers-
driven casework staff may give the appearance of responding to the goal of
moving children to the best permanent placement, in fact, they may be avoid-
ing precisely the kinds of family casework needed to achieve that end. The
researchers reported variants of an all too familiar refrain, quoting casework-
ers complaints that “what really counts . . . . is how many kids we have. If
you’re working with a family, it doesn’t count.”
Street-level studies reveal
the secret paradox of performance measurement: it can be quite effective in
influencing organizational practice, but numbers-driven practice can be
detrimental to performance.
This problem is not limited to policy delivery by public bureaucracies.
Under the rubric of NPM, performance-based contracting to private agencies
has become an increasingly popular way to extend or sometimes replace pub-
lic service delivery. Yet, it is vulnerable (perhaps even more vulnerable) to the
problems of specification and measurement inherent in crafting performance
measures for social services. Research across a variety of policy areas indi-
cates that state government agencies often lack the capacity both to devise and
monitor service delivery contracts.
Ironically, demands for greater account-
ability in contracting have had perverse consequences, similar to those
previously discussed. According to one analysis, “Legislatures and state offi-
cials seeking increased accountability press for greater reporting requirements
Accountability in Street-Level Bureaucracies 325
from providers. However, this action only serves to exacerbate the capacity
challenges facing public managers . . . . as reporting requirements increase, so
do program administration costs.”
Street-level studies have been important in revealing the often subtle
ways in which performance-based contracts tax organizational resources,
distort performance, and erode the responsiveness of community-based
organizations to their constituents.
Somewhat less subtly, research has
suggested that performance measures themselves may be subject to political
These illustrative examples do more than show how accountability is
harmed by over-reliance on imperfect (at best) and deeply flawed (at worst)
performance measurement. They also demonstrate the contribution of street-
level research in illuminating otherwise hidden dimensions of organizational
performance that are critical to accountability. Street-level research enables
analysis to reach beyond formal administrative categories to unpack the policy
experience. It examines organizational practices to see what they produce,
rather than assuming the product and measuring the extent of its production. It
makes transparent practices that are otherwise obscured and provides a basis
for assessing their consequences.
As this literature review suggests, commonly used instruments are insufficient
to achieve accountability in street-level provision of social policy and, under
certain circumstances, may even misdirect organizational practices. A street-
level perspective, as applied theory, offers a reverse view of accountability.
That is, it approaches accountability in organizations, not from the outside in,
but from the inside out. It is a distinctive form of management research that
directs attention to how policy is produced at the “front lines.” This is most
valuable when policy delivery involves lower-level discretion and complex
decision-making, features that are quite common to organizations responsible
for implementing social welfare, education, and health policies. Used along
with other strategic tools, a street-level approach adds an important dimension
to accountability research.
The Case for a Street-Level Approach
At its most basic level, street-level research provides a management strategy
for separating policy fact from policy fiction. “Policy fiction” refers to the
rhetorical or ascribed intent of policy (e.g., to prepare welfare recipients for
work) as well as to the administrative constructs used as proxies for program
326 Brodkin
activities (e.g., “training,” “education”). Implementation research built on the
compliance model began to unravel these distinctions by documenting
whether and to what extent any policy-relevant activities occurred at all.
Subsequently, many social policy evaluations now use administrative data to
monitor participation rates and enrollment in program components as a means
of identifying policy’s reach, for example, by counting the numbers of people
enrolled in training or education programs. Evaluations also may include
process analyses that identify basic implementation activities. These descriptive
accounts of implementation move analysis in the right direction. But they are
not designed to reach deeply or broadly enough into street-level organiza-
tional practices to adequately assess how discretion is used, what influences it,
and its consequences for shaping policy on the ground.
By investigating why and how bureaucratic practices develop in specific
organizational context, street-level analysis can inform the search for
improved accountability in policy delivery. It has the distinct advantage of
moving analysis beyond the “command and control” assumptions of the
compliance model to take empirical account of factors that influence routine
practice on the ground. Richard Elmore has pointed out that street-level
research “forces us to contend with the mundane patterns of bureaucratic life
and also to think about how new policies affect the daily routines of people
who deliver social services. Policymakers, analysts, and administrators have a
tendency to focus on variables that emphasize control and predictability . . . .
[which] leads to serious misperceptions.”
Beyond the myth of hierarchy
lies the possibility of understanding what front-line implementers do, the
systemic features of their work life that shape their practices, how routine
practices create policy, and the content of policy as they have produced it.
In this sense, street-level research makes a crucial link in the causal chain.
To advance accountability by attributing outcomes to policy, analysts must be
able to specify the policy intervention, not as imagined or reconstructed in
administrative measures, but as experienced. More broadly, street-level
research directly investigates what implementing organizations produce, how,
and why. It builds on a theoretical understanding of discretion in street-level
organizations. Despite the persistent hopes and preferences of both policy-
makers and managers, street-level scholarship reveals that caseworkers and
other lower-level service providers “do not do just what they want or just what
they are told to want. They do what they can.”
For example, street-level
studies of welfare-to-work programs have shown that casework practice is a
function of capacity, which, in turn, depends on “professional skills, agency
resources, and access to good training and employment opportunities for
clients. Within that context, their practices are shaped by agency incentives
and mechanisms that make staff accountable for clients and to the public.”
Perversely, management strategies based on imposing rules and regulations
may produce undesirable effects, driving discretion beneath the radar where it
becomes subject to the logic of street-level practice. Studies of street-level
Accountability in Street-Level Bureaucracies 327
organizations show that discretion, in itself, is neither good nor bad but the
wild card of policy delivery, likely to produce different results in different
organizational contexts. These differences are highlighted in street-level
studies of policy delivery in a variety of national settings.
Street-level research offers a lens through which to discover unmeasured
dimensions of administrative practice that are critical to accountability and
achieving a better understanding policy outcomes. It has the potential to help
policymakers and managers confront the fundamental question of how to
create policy and organizational structures that are conducive to good street-
level work and, in so doing, improve the prospects for accountability.
In addition, this approach has implications for the study of new public
management strategies, particularly, for analysis of contracting public
functions to private agencies. It can be applied to studies of conventional
public bureaucracies as well as to private organizations contracted to perform
policy functions. It allows for comparative analysis of street-level practices
under different organizational conditions, for example, in private non-profit
and for-profit organizations, as well as in public organizations that seek to
emulate market models. It provides a strategy for identifying variation in
structural features of policy delivery under these types of arrangements and
how they influence the street-level production of policy and accountability.
When “making the numbers” is insufficient to capture the realities of organi-
zational practice, street-level analysis can be used to examine whether performance-
based contracts, in practice, are paying for performance or, instead, “paying
for pretense.”
Overall, a street-level approach to accountability has the potential to
illuminate dimensions of policy delivery that other analytic strategies do not
capture. By examining how policy is delivered at the “front lines” of organiza-
tions, it brings into view those discretionary practices that systematically
shape the policy experience. This is important to accountability as it extends
management’s capacity to assess dimensions of practice that bear on the
content and quality of service delivery and on its distribution (e.g., whether
practices advance inclusion or exclusion). When these crucial dimensions of
organizational practice cannot be discovered using standard evaluation
techniques, street-level analysis provides an alternative.
Toward a Methodology for Applied Research
Although street-level research on social welfare policy is not new, there is no
blueprint for its use in applied management research. If street-level analysis is
to develop as a mechanism for studying bureaucratic practice and advancing
administrative accountability, it will be important to articulate and refine
research methodologies. This discussion takes a step in that direction. It
identifies a strategy for combining organizational and ethnographic analytic
328 Brodkin
techniques to investigate the practices of street-level policy delivery. It also
takes note of other street-level strategies for investigating accountability.
As a strategy for applied research, organizational ethnographies enable
the analyst to get inside street-level practice, understand its logic on its own
terms, and explore the policy experience at the ground-level. It is part of a
hermeneutic process in which the researcher moves between empirical
observation and bureaucratic theory to build a grounded understanding of
accountability and its organizational and political boundaries.
As with other modes of ethnographic work, this approach is highly
contextual. In a sense, it requires entering into the world of the street-level
bureaucrat and finding ways to understand the logic of street-level work in
specific organizational and policy settings. It is largely a rationalist project,
yet it depends on a highly-textured, qualitative understanding of behavior
more often associated with interpretative methods. The strategy of organiza-
tional ethnography outlined here combines techniques of organizational anal-
ysis and ethnography in order to examine the relationship between
organizational structure and the practice of policy delivery. It uses intensive
case studies to explore complex processes and patterns that cannot be ade-
quately understood through experimental or quantitative research designs.
A qualitative case study methodology provides a means of searching for
and explaining patterns of practice from situationally-specific data. This type
of approach is commonly used in research that emphasizes depth and
complexity, rather than seeking to survey surface patterns. It uses iterative
processes of interviewing and observation to explore possibilities, rather than
test hypothesized relationships among known, quantifiable variables. For
example, street-level theory indicates that the structure of work affects the
exercise of bureaucratic discretion. But this emerging body of theory is insuf-
ficiently well-developed to fully identify structural elements, how to opera-
tionalize them, and “what else” may be important. Case study research
permits an exploration into these elements and allows for the discovery of
other factors that may not have been anticipated. It offers a richly descriptive
foundation for exploring the dynamic processes through which organizational
patterns of practice develop and how they shape policy “on the ground.” In
assessing accountability, this is a strategy that, in effect, casts a wide enough
net to capture both expected and unexpected dimensions of organizational
The essential objective of street-level analysis is to reconstruct agency
practice in terms of its own internal logic, rather than the logic of managerial
command and control. This involves a systematic examination of both the
conditions of work and the content of practice, moving heuristically between
the two in an effort to explain the particular form that implementation takes in
specific settings.
In pursuit of that objective, organizational ethnographies combine
interview techniques often used by organization researchers with observation
Accountability in Street-Level Bureaucracies 329
techniques commonly used in ethnography. Observation permits data on inter-
actions between policy “providers” and “receivers” to be generated in the
specific context in which they occur. In a sense, it adopts an ethnographic per-
spective by studying street-level bureaucrats “in their own time and space”
and at work in their “natural habitat.”
But it differs from other types of
ethnographic work that aim to develop a highly-contextualized understanding
of individuals through shared experience. In contrast, the organizational eth-
nographic approach focuses on the organization itself and aims to discover
and explain patterns of practice that emerge within it. It aims to make explicit
the links between organizational structures, the individuals interacting within
them, informal patterns of street-level practice, and the policy product that
emerges from them.
In conducting this type of research, ethnographic techniques of extended
observation offer the considerable advantage of its directness. The research
does not depend solely on the recall of interviewees or their reconstruction of
events. As Michael Burawoy describes it, the advantages of observation “are
assumed to lie not just in direct observation of how people act, but also how
they understand and experience those acts. It enables us to juxtapose what peo-
ple say they are up to against what they actually do.”
Coupling observation
and interviewing techniques allows the researcher to probe the reasoning and
perceptions behind behaviors. Together, these methods enable researchers to
dig beneath administrative categories in order to probe their content and under-
stand the development of informal decision rules that shape patterns of practice.
Examples drawn from research on U.S. welfare policy illustrate how these
research techniques can be used to investigate casework practice. Among their
discretionary tasks, caseworkers have authority to impose sanctions (cutting
social benefits) as penalty for individual non-compliance with procedural rules.
How do administrators know whether caseworkers are applying sanctions
appropriately? Administrative data indicate the reason caseworkers present
(usually from a standard checklist) for imposing sanctions, but do not reveal
the reasoning behind the decision or whether it is justified.
Arguably, skilled interviewing could probe the decision-making
involved in the case and provide a more accurate understanding of how,
when and why a caseworker judged an individual to be noncompliant with
rules. However, post hoc explanation offered in an interview may say more
about how caseworkers justify their actions after the fact than what impelled
those actions.
When researchers combine interviews and observation, they can move
beyond second-hand accounts in order to systematically document what case-
workers do in practice, preferably in a variety of instances (say over the
course of a day, a week, or a month). In the sanctions example, observational
methods have revealed considerable elasticity in the use of sanctions, with
variation unexplained by differences in rules, ideology, or even the behavior
of clients.
Combining observation and interviews can be used to probe for
330 Brodkin
differences between “what they say” and “what they do.” Although in inter-
views caseworkers may portray themselves as “tough” or “soft” in applying
the rules, their day-to-day practices may be inconsistent with what they
preach. Variation and discrepancies signal the researcher to search for other
factors that may be systemically influencing street-level practice, testing
working hypotheses with additional observation and interviews.
Applying an analytic lens that locates casework within the broader
organizational structure, allows the researcher to conduct observation and
interviews in order to test working hypotheses and search for informal
decision rules that may be systematically shaping practice. This strategy, in
the sanctions case, showed that caseworkers generally operated as rational
actors, taking the path of least resistance, that is, using discretion in ways most
consistent with the logic imposed by the organizational pressures and incen-
tives existing at the street-level. Variation in sanctions use could not be
explained simply by assuming increased noncompliance on the part of
individual clients. Instead, street-level analysis revealed that the application of
sanctions reflected organizational conditions, increasing when caseworkers
faced increased risk of being penalized by their managers for failing to catch
case errors, when they were largely unaccountable for excessive sanctions
use, when they found sanctions were easier to apply, and when caseworkers
were rewarded for caseload reduction.
Once qualitative research uncovers
these dimensions of organizational practices, they can be further investigated
using both qualitative and quantitative methods.
Assessing the Street-Level Approach: Potential and Practicality
On the whole, street-level research, as applied theory, adds an important tool
to the portfolio of accountability research strategies. Its chief strength is that it
allows the researcher to get inside street-level practice, understand its logic on
its own terms, and explore the policy experience at the ground-level. This
permits what might be called “deep dish analysis” that can reach beyond
visible policy constructs to see what occurs beneath the surface of policy rhet-
oric and administrative measures, seek to explain it, and probe its conse-
quences. In its broadest application, it offers a method for probing
organizational practice and, ultimately, illuminating how social politics is
structured within specific settings. Burawoy refers to this strategy as the
extended case method, in which “the significance of a case relates to what it
tells us about the world in which it is embedded.”
As with any methodology, this one, too, has its limitations. These
derive from the potential for observer bias and from the limits of the orga-
nizational case study approach itself. Although observer bias is always a
risk in this methodology, it is possible to limit that risk by using multiple
observations in different settings, by utilizing multiple data sources and by
Accountability in Street-Level Bureaucracies 331
using theory to systematize the collection and analysis of data. It is also
useful, when possible, to apply a triangulation method to cross-check dif-
ferent forms of data with each other, subjecting inconsistent findings to
special scrutiny.
Generalizability is a second concern, although argu-
ably less relevant to applied street-level research than to theoretical
However, practicality may call for a targeted use of this strategy. Because
organizational ethnographies are relatively labor intensive, they may be
difficult to use in projects requiring large-scale data collection. However, this
approach can be incorporated into a portfolio of management strategies and
used selectively to obtain a close and systematic look at organizational
processes and practices, thereby, enabling management to identify problems
occurring in specific organizations at specific times. For example, this
approach to street-level research may be used to target particular organiza-
tions or subunits that are a subject of concern. Or selective analyses can be
used to uncover organizational problems that have wider relevance, say by
strategic sampling of agencies with responsibilities for a given policy domain.
In short, a street-level approach to accountability extends, rather than
replaces, existing strategies for addressing accountability. It may be incorpo-
rated into existing mechanisms, including operational audits and field
reviews, as a tool for examining otherwise hidden dimensions of organiza-
tional performance that are vital to transparency and accountability. More-
over, as previously noted, the specific street-level approach described here is
not the only way, nor in all instances the best way, to investigate questions of
organizational practice and accountability. In addition to organizational
ethnographies, street-level may use other methods (among them (interviewing,
surveys, and analysis of case records) to gain important insights into aspects
of organizational practice.
The quest for accountability in organizations that deliver public policy has
proved difficult to satisfy. The creation of better strategies for advancing
accountability continues to constitute a difficult challenge. Disillusionment
with “Old Public Management” strategies of command and control have led to
“New Public Management” strategies. Under the rubric of NPM, both perfor-
mance measurement and performance-based contracting have become increas-
ingly popular methods of indirect control, favoring product specification and
incentives over procedural rules and regulations.
Yet, it appears that these
new strategies may give the illusion of accountability, while leaving crucial
aspects performance hidden from view.
As discussed, certain types of performance quotas, such as participation
rates or numbers of children assessed for maltreatment, are relatively easy to
332 Brodkin
measure; but they do not address the content of practice and may even create
incentives that undermine desired policy goals. Alternatively, broader
outcome measures (such as caseload reductions or unification of troubled
families) may hold agencies responsible for things beyond their control,
including the adequacy of agency resources and conditions in the external
environment. Nor do they make visible the crucial information on how
measured outcomes were achieved. They can even do more harm than good
when badly specified. Paradoxically, performance measures may give the
appearance of transparency, but actually obscure a full understanding of how
agencies work and the real content of what they are producing.
The urge to find solutions to complicated managerial problems is apt to
intensify as globalization and related economic changes create new pressures
for the development and implementation of social welfare policies. In this
environment, it is increasingly important that technologies of accountability
be improved to advance transparency and democratic accountability, not just
upward through the hierarchy, but also outward to include those who use and
depend on government social welfare programs. Yet, strategies for improving
the accountability of street-level organizations remain limited.
Applied street-level research contributes a strategy of organizational analysis
that embraces the conundrums of discretion, however complex and daunting
that may be. It is built on the premise that management analysis must offer a
deeper and more complex understanding of how street-level organizations
work and how policy is produced and experienced in everyday organizational
life. The street-level approach contributes a distinctive perspective to the port-
folio of strategies available to assess organizational performance. It marks, not
the end, but the beginning of a broader agenda aimed at rethinking account-
ability and how to advance it.
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... Vis, Lauritzen, and Fossum 2019) and lack of transparent arguments for their decisions (MCF 2020;Munro 2011). These criticisms are often linked to professionals' use of discretion, and are considered a threat to democratic accountability (Brodkin 2008). In response to such criticism we have witnessed increased use of rule-following approaches and risk assessment tools (e.g. ...
... Consequently, this may influence the structural dimension of discretion (Molander 2016), as a standardized assessment framework adds new rules to decision-making practices. Some scholars have raised concerns that this limits frontline discretion that may be tacit (Brodkin 2008). In turn, this may restrict professionals' body of knowledge, which needs to be both formal and tacit (Freidson 2001;Polanyi & Sen, 2009[1961). ...
... Yet unless decision-making practices are made explicit to service users, transparency will vary according to the audience, and will therefore only be present to a certain degree (Devlieghere and Gillingham 2020). Although professionals' actions become standardized as they seem to demonstrate rather strong loyalty to the tool, this study shows that procedural standards only to some extent function as a tool for democratic accountability (Brodkin 2008). ...
Full-text available
This article examines the use of a standardized assessment framework (the Kvello Assessment Framework (KF)), and how it guides assessment work, professional discretion and the knowledge base in child welfare practice. The KF is explored as an example of a standardized tool; it is a non-manual based assessment tool commonly used in Norway. The data stem from fieldwork in two child welfare offices and client documents from one of these offices, which were analysed using thematic analysis. The findings show that the use of the assessment tool led to proceduralisation of assessment work in two areas. First, through requirements for focus and for activities to obtain information. Second, the tool included procedural requirements of form-filling, which in turn placed interpretive demands on the professionals that turned interpretations into conclusions. The findings also identified gaps in their chain of argument. Based on these findings, I argue that use of this tool influences professionals’ discretionary activity as it leads to standardization of decision-making and a narrow knowledge base. The tool may increase the level of transparency of decision-making, and thus function as an instrument of control in association with accountability. However, the use of a standardized assessment tool does not seem to enhance child welfare professionals’ analytical skills and thus does not solve the challenges of child welfare practice. The article discusses how these shortcomings may lead to biased assessments, and emphasizes the importance of a transparent decision-making process.
... Clinical activism is a focused and collaborative antioppressive appropriation of social workers' discretionary space within street-level bureaucracies (Lipsky [1980] 2010). Following Michael Lipsky's foundational work, street-level organizational theory has tended to emphasize the ways social workers and other care workers on the ground manage chronic resource constraints by withholding care to some potential clients, often in alignment with broader societal prejudices (Brodkin 2008;Spitzmueller 2016). At the same time, representational bureaucracy theory has shown that social workers who share marginalized social identities with clients can often navigate organizational constraints and contribute to more equitable outcomes for organizations and clients (Watkins-Hayes 2009. ...
Social workers in Palestine routinely navigate issues of stigma with their clients without formal ethical guidance. This constructivist grounded theory study examines how Palestinian social workers in the West Bank organize themselves ethically to provide stigmatized care—where social workers supporting people with socially rejected conditions and experiences can face community scorn by extension. We conducted focus groups and individual interviews with 99 social work supervisors in 12 cities over a 2-year period. Our analysis reveals localized reinterpretations of acceptance and confidentiality as ethically grounded principles for stigmatized care. These practice principles have emerged under strain in cases involving substance use, sex work, sexual variance, sexual violence, and child abuse allegations but reach a limit around accusations of collaboration with the occupation. Our findings reflect a dynamic vernacular ethics: a politicized field of shared concerns and debates that social workers use to guide their practice without a codified ethical system.
Sanctioning welfare clients has become a fundamental practice for social policy based on behavioural conditionality. Although sanctioning practices have received attention in research focused on street‐level work, the way in which sanctioning practices are structured in an institutional context and used by caseworkers should be explored further. This study examines the implementation of the “wastage of resources” sanctioning directive in Polish social welfare offices, based on interviews with social workers and case studies conducted between 2019 and 2021. A research framework based on the street‐level work concept was used to indicate that sanctions were rarely used by social workers because of the administrative justification process, which overwhelmed them with the responsibility of proving sanction‐worthy circumstances. Catalogues of sanction‐worthy situations are developed by local‐level policy agents, social workers, welfare office managers, municipal courts and clients. However, generally, social workers adapt to the given context by disciplining clients informally and avoiding formal sanctions.
Objective Alternative response (AR) is a family-centered, preventative approach for child protection systems. This study first examined what family and case factors predicted re-investigation and then explored which organizational factors influence caseworker and agency implementation of AR Method Using administrative data from child protection reports, AR families (N=9,959) and traditional response (TR) families (N = 13,974) were followed for 18 months to determine re-investigation rates using multilevel modeling where families were nested in county of residence. Four focus groups with 14 participants were conducted to discuss the quantitative findings, organizational culture, and implementation of AR. Results AR families had lower odds of re-investigation; males and younger children also had lower odds. Families with multiple children, prior investigations, receipt of Medicaid, and medium/high risk had higher odds of re-investigation. AR caseworkers provided insights regarding the intersection of family factors, organizational culture and support, and agency implementation of AR. Although participants supported AR, their ability to implement it was influenced by agency support and availability of resources to carry out the basic requirements of the policy. A clear distinction in responses emerged between those who held dual cases versus those holding only AR cases. Conclusion Although AR reduces the odds of re-investigation for low-risk families and was endorsed by caseworkers, AR policy in practice is complex and requires further evaluation, particularly from the perspective of AR caseworkers who faced implementation hurdles.
Full-text available
The study of street-level bureaucracy has been dominated by research from the Global North. Mainstream conceptualizations are, therefore, based on observations from institutional contexts that may vary significantly from the working conditions of frontline workers elsewhere. This article takes stock of the growing body of literature on street-level bureaucracy in weak institutional contexts and brings together relevant insights from comparative political science and public administration into a coherent analytical framework. We identify four institutional factors that shape frontline working conditions and three behavioral patterns in frontline worker agency. These patterns in frontline agency – ranging from policy improvisation to informal privatization – can be understood as an institutional waterbed effect caused by institutional deficiencies, such as resource scarcity and accountability gaps: if the complexity of public service provision is not tackled at the institutional level, it is pushed towards the street-level where frontline workers cope with it in highly diverse ways. Points for practitioners Frontline workers in weak state institutions are commonly faced with highly precarious working conditions. If the structural preconditions for policy implementation and rule enforcement are unresolved, these complexities are pushed towards frontline workers that cope with them through informal privatization, policy improvisation, or alienative commitment focused on mere job survival. Frontline agency is an indispensable factor for understanding the selective and often distributive nature of service delivery and rule enforcement in the Global South.
The UN has declared universal health coverage an urgent global goal. Efforts to achieve this goal have been supported by rigorous research on the scientific, technical, and administrative aspects of health systems design. Yet a substantial portion of the world's population does not have access to essential health services. There is growing recognition that achieving universal health coverage is a political challenge. However, fundamental concepts from the political science discipline are often overlooked in the health literature. This Series paper draws on political science research to highlight the ways in which politics can facilitate, or stymie, policy reform. Specifically, we present a framework of analysis that explores how interests, ideas, and institutions shape universal health coverage. We then examine key considerations relating to the implementation of relevant policies. This Series paper shows that a political understanding of universal health coverage is needed to achieve health for all.
Purpose This study aims to explore the calculations and valuations that unfold in everyday practices within social care settings. Specifically, the paper concerns the role of accounting in dealing with multiple calculable and non-calculable spaces within the case management process. The study sheds light on the multiplicity produced in constructing the client as an object through the calculations and valuations embedded in the costing and caring practices in social work. Design/methodology/approach This is a qualitative case study in a Swedish social care organisation, with a specific focus on the calculations and valuations within the case management process. The data have been gathered from 20 interviews with social workers, team leaders, managers and a management accountant, along with more than 36 h of on-site observations and internal organisational documents, including policy documents, guidelines and procedural lists. Findings The case management process involves interconnected practices in constructing the client as an object. While monetary calculations and those associated with worth are embedded in costing and caring practices, they interact and proliferate in various ways. Three elements are found: transforming service units into centres of calculation, constructing the accounts of calculation and establishing the cost-value calculations. Calculations and valuations are actuated in these elements in describing the need, matching the case with the unit and caseworker and deciding on the measure. The objectification of the client entails the construction of accounts, for example, ongoing qualifications, categorisations and groupings of units, juridical frameworks, case types, needs and measures. As an object multiple, the client becomes different objects at different stages, challenging the establishment accounts, and thus producing a range of calculations and valuations. Such diversity in calculations concomitantly produces more calculations to represent the present and absent multiple facets of the client, resulting in a multiplicity of costing and caring. Practical implications The study might flag up for practitioners the possible risks and unintended consequences of depending too much on fixed guidelines and (performance) indicators since social work involves object multiples, which are always in diversity and changeable in situ. Considering the multiple dimensions within the specific contexts could thus be helpful to mitigate such risks in the evaluation of social care processes and the design of (performance) metrics. Originality/value This study contributes to the literature on accountingisation by extending the concept as a part of ongoing organisational practices, materialised within the calculations of money and worth in everyday social care. Besides demonstrating their reconsolidation, this study shows a multiplicity of costing and caring practices depending on the way the client is constructed, resulting in the proliferation of accounting(s) and ultimately accountingisation of social work.
Most of the literature on Title I of ESEA focuses either on activities at the federal level—the passage and early administration of the law—or at the local level—the quality of programs or alleged abuses in using Title I funds. Little attention has been paid to the intergovernmental problems of implementing education reform in a federal system. In this article, the author examines the interaction between the different levels of government concerning Title I, focusing mainly on the program's management and on specific federal efforts to issue strong guidelines. The discussion reveals the political and bureaucratic obstacles which constrain federal efforts to redirect local priorities and explores the notion of countervailing local power as a way for the poor to gain greater leverage in the program's operation.
Recent state and federal legislation holds the promise of sweeping reform in special- education practices. In this article, Richard Weatherley and Michael Lipsky examine the implementation of Chapter 766, the dramatically innovative state special- education law in Massachusetts. They show how the necessary coping mechanisms that individual school personnel use to manage the demands of their jobs may, in the aggregate, constrain and distort the implementation of special-education reform. Their findings have serious implications for those seeking to introduce policy innovations in service bureaucracies of all kinds where the deliverers of service exercise substantial discretion in setting their work priorities.
EditorOs Preface Part One. Introduction to the Encounter 1. The Public Encounter and Its Study: Charles T. Goodsell Part Two: Attitudes in the Encounter 2. Client Evluations of Social Programs: Barbara J. Nelson 3. Attitudinal Tendencies among Officials: Clarence N. Stone 4. Adovacy and Alienation in Street-Level Work: Michael Lipsky Part Three: Disparities in the Encounter 5. Client-Official Encounter in Social Service Agengies: Yeheshel Hasenfeld and Daniel Steinmetz 6. The Allocation of Justice and Police-Citizen Encounters: Michael K. Brown 7. Public Law and Equality in Local Government Services: Mitchell F. Rice Part Four: Responsiveness in the Encounter 8. Responsive Performance by Public Officials: Kenneth R. Mladenka 9. Bureaucratic Monitoring Mechanisms: Larry B. Hill Part Five: The Future of the Encounter 10. The Public Official of the 1980s: Frank P. Sherwood 11. The Citizen of the 1980s: Orion F. White, Jr. Part Six. Research on the Encounter 12. Client-Centered Research in Europe: Dieter Grunow 13. Research Issues and the Future of the Field: Charles T. Goodsell Contributors Selected Bibliography Index
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 1 radically reshaped the landscape of welfare for women. 2 The changes transformed a program designed to meet the material needs of poor women and their families into one primarily focused on preventing dependency through promoting work. PRWORA includes an array of behavioral-based reforms that mandate work and penalize its absence. One of the key tools for enforcing the work mandate is sanctions, which can include financial penalties. Women who do not comply with work rules can lose all or some of their cash assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid. Whether sanctions help women achieve self-sufficiency in the labor market is a subject of scholarly debate. Central to this discussion is how sanctions are being used on the front-lines of welfare, and how recipients are responding to them. This article reports the findings of the author's empirical study of the sanctioning process in two regions in Texas: one primarily rural and the other urban/suburban. It examines how and when sanctions are imposed by local staff in welfare offices and what problems recipients encounter when they attempt to comply with the work rules and avoid sanctions. Using this and other empirical studies on sanctions, this article examines whether sanctions are helping poor women achieve self-sufficiency. Part I of this article discusses the history of work rules in public assistance programs. Part II examines the use of sanctions in welfare-to-work programs, drawing extensively on the empirical literature describing the rates of sanction, the characteristics of sanctioned families, and whether sanctions induce hardship. Part III reports on the results of the study. Part IV evaluates whether sanctions are an appropriate tool for addressing the problem of poverty and welfare dependency among poor women and their families.