Captured by bureaucracy:
Street-level professionals mediating past, present, and future knowledge.
Nanke Verloo, University of Amsterdam
This is the preproof version, for citations, this chapter was published as:
Verloo, N. (2019) ‘Captured by bureaucracy: street-level professionals mediating
past, present and future knowledge’, in Raco, M. and Savini, F. (eds) Planning
and Knowledge: How New Forms of Technocracy Are Shaping Contemporary
Cities. Policy Press, pp. 75–89.
This chapter explores how street-level professionals can function as mediators
between bureaucratic and tacit (Scott, 1998) knowledge in participatory planning
processes. Lipsky’s classic study of street-level bureaucrats (1980) reveals how
frontline workers are embedded in the logic of bureaucracy on the one hand and the
messy reality of the street-level on the other. Street-level workers are required to
translate the rational norms of bureaucracy – which are guided by accountability,
quotas, and transparency – to the norms and practices of everyday life at the street-
level – where they need experience, tacit knowledge, and improvisation. In Lipsky’s
work, street-level bureaucrats are typically teachers, police officers, social workers,
and court officials (Lipsky, 1980: 3). In this chapter, I propose to also understand
policy makers and planners who have the responsibility to organize a deliberative or
participatory process as street-level professionals. I use the term ‘professional’ to
include the growing body of experts who, because of a growing demand for
participatory planning, are in the unique position to bridge plans of the local
government with plans of the community.
I will argue that planners are in a unique position to develop an expertise for such
street-level mediation. However, technocratic institutions tend to ‘capture’ that
mediation through institutional norms that require organizing, reducing, and
abstracting the complex knowledge of the community. I will use an interpretative
approach (Yanow, 2000, 2007) to analyze several ‘critical moments’ that shaped one
particular planning process in Amsterdam. These challenging moments provide a lens
into three ways in which the deliberative process was ‘captured by bureaucracy’: first,
by excluding informal stories from the institutional memory; second, by a top-down
problem definition; and third, by the changing meaning of the decision mandate. In
response to these moments of capture, street-level professionals used their
discretionary space to develop skills to translate past, present, and future knowledge.
Challenges of the deliberative professional
The challenge of working at the street-level
Planners and policy makers can be understood as ‘street-level democrats’ because
their ‘work involves – day by day – practical challenges of democratic responsiveness
in realms such as community development, youth work, school administration, and
urban planning’ (Laws & Forester, 2015: 12). They have to implement participatory
policies, as well as determine who is to take part in the deliberation and how that
process should unfold. Since Lipsky’s account of street-level bureaucrats, however,
local governments have changed. Urban developments have become complex multi
stakeholder processes in which diverse types of knowledge have to be mediated and
folded into decision making. This gives public professionals such as planners, policy
makers, and welfare workers a central position in the negotiation between
accountability and the use of discretionary space, between the government and its
citizens, and between technocratic knowledge and everyday tacit knowledge.
Street-level democrats have substantial discretion in the execution of their work.
Their practice shapes the meaning of policy in two ways: first, they choose how to
implement policies and plans and thus shape citizens’ experiences of policy making
and planning; and second, they determine the eligibility of citizens for government
benefits as well as involvement in participatory processes. Street-level bureaucrats
thus ‘implicitly mediate aspects of the constitutional relationship of citizens to the
state’ (Lipsky, 1980: 4). That discretion, however, is not always positive. A general
concern is that street-level professionals use their influence over policy
implementation to serve their own interests (Hogwood and Gunn, 1984). At best,
street-level influence contributes to the use of state resources to respond to
community and individual needs, but at worst, it displaces service goals with self-
interest (Maynard-Moody, Musheno, & Palumbo, 1990: 833). Street-level
professionals and the administrations they work for thus constantly have to balance
these two sides of the same coin. Researchers, however, argue that despite its
inconsistency with the bureaucratic ideal of hierarchical control and rationality,
‘delegating authority and including the perspective of street-level workers in
programmatic decisions is one realistic alternative to managerial control when the
objective is to reduce the dangers of discretion’ (Maynard-Moody et al., 1990: 844).
The double role of street-level professionals can thus be viewed as problematic, but it
also provides an opportunity to improve policy programs, plans, and the relationship
between the state and its citizens.
The challenge of mediating knowledge
The role of planners as street-level democrats requires an ability to mediate
knowledge. In a deliberative process, street-level professionals are placed in a
position to translate technocratic or expert knowledge from bureaucracy to the local -
often considered mundane - yet expert knowledge of citizens (Durose, 2009). That
position is hardly new; Lasswell was calling for a functionality that moved beyond
expertise to incorporate mediation as early as 1941:
The task of the emerging scientific policy professional – the urban planner,
policy analyst, health or environmental specialist, etc. – would not be just to
provide technical information for problem-solving, but also to combine it with
a new function of facilitating public deliberation and learning (Lasswell in
Fischer, 2004: 21).
In recent decades, however, Lasswell’s ideal has turned into a type of planner who
presents the opinions of the public to elite decision-makers (Merelman in Fischer,
2004: 21) and not the other way around. In that role, the public professionals merely
function as the only experts who have the technical expertise to intervene.
Growing uncertainty and reliability on expertise has reinforced the importance of
expert knowledge and has simultaneously diminished the ability of laypeople to
contribute their knowledge to decision making processes (Callon, 1999). This “quasi
guardianship of autonomous experts” (Dahl, 2000) makes it difficult to hold public
professionals accountable to the public – a process that makes the gap between policy
professionals and ordinary citizens bigger instead of smaller (Beck, 1992).
Planning theory has provided several responses that seek to bridge this gap between
expert and lay knowledge. Of paramount importance is the approach to engage
laypeople in the deliberative processes. Since the argumentative turn (Fischer and
Forester, 1993), several approaches have been developed to emphasize the quality of
dialogue and engage a variety of stakeholders in the deliberative process. Healey’s
work on collaborative planning (1997) proposes the organization of the planning
process as a collaboration between stakeholders. In these processes, planners take a
role in mediating planning and policy disputes (Susskind and Ozawa, 1984).
In the deliberative approach, power is located not only in institutional spheres or
particular social spheres, but rather it is distributed throughout the entire realm of
human action (Innes & Booher, 2015: 199). To translate knowledge means not only
that street-level professionals work with citizens in a way that enables them to make
intelligent political judgments, but also that they inform their institutions with the
more tacit and informal knowledge from the street-level. Professionals do not render
judgment, but instead function as mediators between the bureaucracy and the world of
citizens. Mediating between different types of knowledge is thus a key skill for
successful street-level democrats.
The challenge of capture
With the term ‘capture,’ I seek to address a particular and often unintended
institutional reality. The term capture marks a moment when professionals are
challenged to innovate their way of working, but are pulled back by the bureaucratic
reality of institution. Institutions use bureaucratic norms that shape the routines and
practices of street-level democrats, which can in turn be used to maintain the status
quo. On the other hand, street-level democrats have discretionary space that provides
them with space for improvisation (Lipsky, 1980). The innovation of practice routines
takes shape in between these two institutional realities.
The concept emerged from observations that David Laws and I made during four
years of training sessions with local professionals. We observed how local institutions
stimulated their employees to innovate the deliberative process, but got ‘stuck’
because of institutional norms and technocratic conditions. Local professionals got
‘stuck’ when they tried to innovate their work and use a participatory way. They were
supported by their organization, but often found themselves facing the same problems
they had faced before. David and I started to use the term ‘capture’ in relation to these
challenges. Institutional norms may capture professionals unintentionally, while also
instrumentally using bureaucracy to capture professionals and pull them back into the
Studying moments of capture empirically, as a critical moments (Verloo, 2018b) in a
process of deliberation, is helpful to understanding how practitioners build capacity
for dealing with such moments. Laws and Forester (2015) used a similar approach to
show how the relationship between expertise knowledge and context-related
knowledge should always be diagnosed in action. ‘Those working in the immediacy
of local situations, in the specific settings of such cases, need to diagnose the context
at hand and the problem at hand together in order to design actions that draw on the
features of the case to address concerns for respect, for fairness, for democracy’
(Laws & Forester, 2015: 348). Dealing with capture thus requires the ability to
mediate expert knowledge and street-level knowledge. In the case study below, I
analyze how that mediation takes shape in a deliberative process.
As in any process, the past, present, and future also shape and affect deliberative
processes. The past is important because it sets the significance of a process.
Memories of experiences in the past – like an attempt to participate in a planning
process, or the memory of a fight with neighbors – shape people’s willingness,
expectations, and therefore behavior in a current planning processes. The present is
often the source of disputes around value – what kind of knowledge is validated to
shape and inform decision making? Yet engaging stakeholders in the process itself
could also validate the process for all stakeholders. The future sets an intention about
the goals of a process – what kind of neighborhood, public space, or community
should be created? One could understand the past, the present, and the future as types
of knowledge that shape the decision-making process. In the following sections, I
look into ‘critical moments’ (Verloo, 2018a, 2018b) that reveal how street-level
professionals mediated between past, present, and future knowledge within a planning
Mediating knowledge – a case study
The case study took place in Amsterdam between 2011 and 2015. At the time, the
attempt to become a so-called ‘participation society’ was high on the political agenda
at all levels of Dutch political institutions (Hurenkamp, Tonkens and Duyvendak,
2012). The Council of Amsterdam East wanted to facilitate a participatory planning
process for a recreational facility on Java Island in Amsterdam. In 2011, a group of
local citizens came together and requested that the local government facilitate the
construction of a neighborhood playground. At the time, the municipality of
Amsterdam was decentralized and comprised of several local districts that each had a
broad mandate to make decisions and plan public spaces. Roos was a so-called
‘participation broker’ at the local district council - her job was to organize the process
and contact the neighbors about a possible playground. The aforementioned request
by the constituents of the Amsterdam East district concerned the plan for a ‘playboat’
– a public boat that would be placed at the quay of the island and on which a
playground would be built.
Roos’ first step was to find out about the wishes of the residents of the area. Very few
people responded to her attempts, which implied that the playboat enjoyed the support
of many of the area’s residents. In April 2012 a local politician made a promise on the
local news that “they would start planning and building the playboat soon” (Sophie,
area manager housing cooperation, June 2015). Interestingly, nothing happened until
February 2013, when the municipality decided to buy a boat that could function as a
playboat. Then, again nothing happened until June 2014, when the municipality
decided to send a letter to the residents of the Veemkade – the quay at which they
planned to permanently dock the playboat – to inform them about the boat. That letter
caused a pandemonium that the local policy makers had not expected. Many citizens
were surprised about the decision and were very much against a playboat right in
front of their houses. This was a big surprise to Roos:
This case study is based on an earlier policy briefing for the municipality of
Amsterdam (Verloo et al., 2015).
‘The local government expected that the project had much support and now it
suddenly turned out to have none! We did intend to have a dialogue with the
neighborhood as a whole. So we decided to organize a meeting with
residents.’ (Roos, participation broker municipality district East, May 2015)
Roos and her team had to deal with the many angry responses to the letter.
Furthermore, they did not send an invitation to people living on the other side of the
quay – the Javakade. This area was considered outside the ‘participatory area.’ The
people living there had a memory of failed attempts to prevent the plan for a
playground in their inner garden called the Tosari garden, and it was that memory that
shaped the critical moment that made the whole project fall apart.
Capturing the mediation of past knowledge
The people of the Javakade had been in a conflict with the municipality over the
Tosari garden. The Tosari garden was a green inner garden surrounded by apartment
buildings in which the local government had previously placed a sliding slope. When
the garden was renovated in 2011, the local council wanted to add additional
playground equipment, but the people living around the garden were against this
decision. Nevertheless, a swing was added. Residents of the Tosari garden tried to
resist that decision and organized themselves in a variety of ways; the municipality,
however, did not listen.
Four years later, that same group found that they were not invited to the public
meeting about the playboat. These citizens mark the memory of the Tosari garden as a
loss of trust in the local government and their intent to facilitate ‘real’ participation.
Roos’ team of street-level professionals did not know about the memory of the Tosari
garden. She and her team only began working at the local district after the discussion
about the Tosari garden was over. When arriving at the public meeting in November
2014, Roos and her team were surprised to find that the people from the Javakade
were present. When the meeting started, they were even more surprised by the story
they were told. The residents of the Javakade were well prepared and able to use their
tacit and local memory of the Tosari garden to determine the discussion about the
‘What I remember vividly is the incredible anger and lack of trust. It seemed a
moment to discharge all distrust and astonishment about the way the
municipality treated us in the past. I also said things that were very angry and
emotional.’ (Linda, resident of Javakade, April 2015)
The institutional body of the local council lacked a structure to pass on the kind of
narrative knowledge from the past to new colleagues working in the present. This
local memory turned out to be a salient piece of information for professionals working
with citizens. Especially when ‘things are at stake’ – during meetings where citizens
and professionals negotiate about future plans – narrative knowledge from the street-
level can provide a capacity to bridge differences. Creating a story that includes the
memories and emotions of diverse stakeholders is itself creating a community
(Verloo, 2015). An inclusive story underlines the meaning of interdependency among
Where the task is typically defined to mean that citizens need to learn more
about the professional’s mode of reasoning, we come to see that the expert
also has to learn more about the practical modes of reason that inform the
citizen’s world (Fischer, 2004: 24).
In Amsterdam East, the street-level professional’s ability to immerse herself in the
practical modes of reason that inform the world of citizens proves to be crucial.
Stories are a specific form of institutional memory that are usually shared among
people in informal interactions. For example, stories spread easily in the corridor or
around the coffee machine. They involve a kind of reasoning that is often understood
as informal, ideographic, and symbolic. Technocratic as well as democratic
institutions are focused on reasoning that is formal, representative of the public good,
and accountable. From that perspective, stories and memories of what has happened
in one community are placed outside the kind of knowledge that the institution uses to
inform professionals working in another community. In Amsterdam, however, it was
exactly that kind of knowledge that captured Roos and her team and created an
obstacle for developing a deliberative process. Narrative knowledge is critical
information for street-level professionals mediating between bureaucracy and citizens.
Street-level professionals are in a unique position to translate lessons from historical
cases to deliberative processes in the present. However, that capacity cannot be
utilized if narrative knowledge is bound to ideographic memories of individuals
working for the organization and does not find a place in the institutional collective
memory. The narrative knowledge about the Tosari garden could have enabled street-
level professionals to acknowledge the earlier attempts of citizens to actively
participate in decision making at the very beginning of the process. Such
acknowledgement would have deepened the recognition of interdependency among
the local institutions and citizens. At the same time, it would have discursively
communicated the intention to take citizens seriously. The lack of acknowledging this
specific history inadvertently communicated what Arnstein called tokenism (Arnstein,
1969) – pretending participation but acting authority.
Capturing the mediation of present knowledge
Not long after the meeting in November 2014, the playboat plans were cancelled. The
local council, which had changed after local elections, decided that there was not
enough support from the community. Nevertheless, the assignment to design more
playgrounds remained on the agenda. In January 2015, the local council decided to
redesign the Western corner of Java Island (de Kop van Java) and place a large
playground on the open site. The local council strategically involved the team of Roos
and the other professionals who were now informed about the memory of the Tosari
garden and had a chance to build a network within the community. They faced the
challenge of rebuilding trust with the community. Their strategy was to start with a
public workshop to which everyone in the neighborhood was invited and which
would facilitate a dialogue about the plans for a playground.
The workshop was not fully open to deliberation, however. The problem was already
defined – there was a need for a playground – and the site where the playground was
to be built was no longer up for debate; a playground would be constructed on the
Kop van Java. In preparation, the local council had prepared two designs: civil
servants of the local council made one design and the citizens’ organization ‘the
Javaarde’ prepared a second. The workshop would allow citizens to reflect on the
designs and to prepare them for an ‘e-voting’ – an internet referendum about the two
plans – that would take place a few months later.
Henk was the moderator for the public meeting that took place in the local school. He,
Roos, and others on the policy making team prepared the workshop in several rounds
in which citizens would dialogue with each other and professionals from the local
district. The room was set up like a workshop environment; there was no stage, and
citizens could place themselves around tables on which drawings of each design were
placed. Local politician Thijs wanted to be transparent and started the meeting by
explaining what was already decided and what was still open for deliberation. He did
not question the decision for a playground itself, which led to a reaction from a
neighbor who criticized, “when did you decide that the site should become a
playground? Who made that decision and why?” (citizens during public meeting, May
At that moment, Henk did something that others later considered very useful upon
reflection. Instead of looking to the politician for an answer, Henk turned to the
audience and to the collective memory of the community for an answer. He asked,
“who has an answer to this question?” At that moment, the representative of the
Javaarde was able to explain the support for the process. Local professionals later
revealed that this was a critical moment because it turned over ownership the process.
The district council was not the only party claiming ownership - the citizens’
organization did as well. On the other hand, citizens later referred to this moment as a
way to steer the discussion away from a new conflict.
Despite rising tensions, the meeting went on to a second round, which allowed
citizens to discuss ideas for the Kop van Java. During these sessions, one group came
up with a whole new plan which included a playground, but which also left more
space for dog-walking – a general concern among citizens. At that moment, Henk was
challenged to choose between the initial agenda of the meeting or to allow this shift in
plans. He intuitively chose the latter and asked the citizens to inform the rest of the
people about this new third plan. The responses to the third design were very positive.
Henk reveals an interesting capacity to translate present knowledge. He commits to
representing the knowledge of citizens and decides that this third design should also
be included in the plans for the e-voting. He mediates present knowledge in three
ways. First, he mediates between the politician who represents a top-down decision
and citizens who represent support for that decision. Second, he mediates between the
existing information that is communicated through the existing designs and the new
information that comes in through the work of citizens at the meeting. He allows both
types of information to shape the outcome of the meeting. Third, he mediates between
what is expected about the continuing process, i.e. an e-voting about two plans, with
an unexpected shift in that process – an e-voting about three plans.
As a mediator Henk, has to make these decisions in a split second and in the
challenging context of a meeting where many things are at stake. Henk explained later
that building trust was on the top of his mind throughout the whole meeting. It was
trust that informed his choices. His working theory of trust was to work on collective
ownership. He used a fascinating practice to develop that trust: “I used the technique
of giving back what people say. So repeating their words so that they know and feel
that I listen to them” (Henk during reflection session, July 2015).
The public meeting reveals how the institutional process of decision making captures
the discretionary space of the mediator because many decisions were already made
beforehand. There was no room to negotiate about the problem-definition itself.
Fischer argued that it is typically ‘the implicit or hidden normative assumptions of
expert advice that concern the citizens, not the technical per se’ (Fischer, 2004: 24).
Citizens seek to deliberate about what makes a good city or neighborhood, and these
ideas and assumptions lie underneath the surface of what planning experts call
rational planning and thus underneath any decision-making process. If citizens are not
engaged in the problem definition that lies underneath a plan, one could question the
meaning of deliberation in the first place.
Nevertheless, the mediator was able to gain some discretionary space by translating
the present knowledge that was available in the room in two ways. He first steered the
conversation to acknowledging collective ownership. Second, he allowed the
inclusion of a future imaginary of citizens that was not in the agenda. He thereby
mediated the dispute over values that are at stake in public meetings.
Capture the mediation of future knowledge
The decision to include the third design in the e-voting had direct effects on the rest of
the planning process. The third design had to be recalculated and checked by planners
of the municipality, and it also had to be translated into a design that could be
executed. The planner’s reason for taking on the extra work was very pragmatic: “we
did not want to ignore the new plan and lose all the goodwill that we created in the
meeting” (Mark, project leader municipality, July 2015).
The e-voting took place in the summer of 2015, with 292 citizens voting, of which an
89% majority selected the third design that came out of the meeting. That clear
outcome caused a new dilemma for the street-level professionals; they proved to be
able to translate the street-level knowledge of citizens into a future plan for the public
space, but were they also able to translate that plan to the political agenda of elected
The representative democracy model is organized in a way that places the mandate for
the final decision in the hands of elected officials – the local district council. Although
they had approved of a deliberative process that engaged citizens, it was unclear
whether they would also have approved of the third design that was now convincingly
representing the future imaginary of citizens. A deliberative process among public
professionals and citizens thus changes the role of elected officials. In effect, the
meaning of their mandate changes. A participatory process shapes a promise that the
outcome of the process will be the outcome of the political decision. Power is no
longer only located in the institutional sphere, but distributed throughout the entire
process (Innes & Booher, 2015: 199). The political mandate becomes less important
than the decision-making process itself. Furthermore, the role of the street-level
professionals becomes more important, because they are in a position to make that
process as legitimate as possible, so that the council does not have another choice but
to follow the advice of citizens. If the local council does not follow the outcome of a
deliberative process, the council would capture the entire process.
Elected official Thijs was engaged in the process from the start. This allowed him to
play a role in mediating between the future imaginary of citizens and the political
imaginary of the council. His engagement and close ties to Roos’ team provided him
with information about the design, but - more important - with knowledge about the
process that would underline the legitimacy of the third design to the rest of the
council. In his speech during the council meeting, he emphasized that process. The
local council decided to follow the outcome of the e-voting. In September 2015,
preparations were made for the execution of the plan.
In this chapter we looked into the practice of street-level professionals. In a
deliberative decision-making process, street-level professionals play a crucial role in
mediating between the logics of bureaucracy and the world of citizens. The ability to
mediate knowledge is a critical capacity in such a process. An interpretative approach
was taken to analyze the critical moments in a case study in the east part of
Amsterdam. Critical moments provide an insight into the way stakeholders negotiate
about meaning and relationships in a process. By examining the details of interaction
during several critical moments in eastern Amsterdam, we started to see how street-
level professionals tried to mediate knowledge, but also where they were captured by
bureaucracy. Street-level professionals have to mediate between memories of the past,
roles in the present, and imaginaries of the future, and all three will determine how
successful a deliberative can be.
What did we learn from this account? First of all, we learned that the ability to
mediate past knowledge is highly dependent on experience. Since Roos was new and
her institution had no structure to pass on narrative knowledge of local memories, her
attempt for citizen participation was captured before it had even started. The past
conveys significance. In practice, that meant that the gap in Roos’ knowledge created
a situation in which she could not assess how significant the memory of the Tosari
garden was to citizens. She was therefore limited in her ability to translate past
knowledge to the present during the public meeting about the playboat.
Second, we learned that engaging citizens by engaging their tacit knowledge in the
present – during a public meeting – should not be confused with engaging citizens in
the problem definition and design of the process itself. The meeting was captured
when the audience asked to be included in the problem definition. Because the present
conveys value, the eventual success of the workshop depended on the capability of
the moderator, who was able both to mediate the dispute of values by building
collective ownership and to include local knowledge by including a third and
unexpected plan. Engaging local knowledge, however, did not shift power relations
between the government and citizens to a more interdependent process. Elected
officials were in control of all three aspects of the decision-making process: the
problem definition at the start; the process of e-voting; and the final decision about
Third, the success of the whole process was dependent upon the mediating capacity of
street-level professionals. Roos and her team, Henk the moderator, and Thijs the local
official committed themselves to developing and representing the future imaginary of
citizens throughout the process, thus conveying intention. Where the lack of past
knowledge captured the first part of the process, the commitment to including present
knowledge and the future imaginary of citizens provided the street-level professionals
with the capacity to resist possible moments of capture. Thijs’ commitment to the
process allowed the council to follow the outcome of the e-voting. Consequently, a
possible moment of institutional capture was avoided.
In short, the ability to translate past, present and future knowledge shapes a successful
deliberative process. But at the same time, bureaucratic norms shape which
knowledge is understood as appropriate, which citizen groups should be engaged,
which decisions are made in advance, and what mandate the outcome of a process
has. The success of a deliberative process is dependent largely upon the capacity of
street-level professionals to use their discretionary space and to predict how these
bureaucratic norms might capture the process. The case reveals that
In order to function as mediators, street-level professionals are in need of an active
commitment of elected officials to include tacit knowledge of citizens and mandate to
manage moments in which they may become captured by bureaucracy.
The case study in eastern Amsterdam was developed in the context of a research
project from the Public Mediation Program at the University of Amsterdam together
with the Municipality of Amsterdam between 2014 and 2015. I am grateful to Nadine
Lodder and Hester de Gooijer, who were both a tremendous help in doing the research
and transcribing the interviews and focus groups; to Dr. David Laws for developing
and rethinking the concept of capture; and to Martien Kuitenbrouwer, who deployed
her network, which allowed us to work with a variety of local professionals to rethink
the notion and apply it to a variety of practices.
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