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Taking Stock of the Situation: The Situational Context of Bureaucratic Encounters


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This paper contributes to e-government research by presenting a conceptual framework of the key-features of the situational context that informs citizens approaches to bureaucratic encounters with government (BEs). The framework is developed through a qualitative hermeneutic approach involving several different literatures. The framework identifies five basic features of the citizen’s situation that may affect how citizens approach BE’s: 1) Consequences: the possible outcomes of the situation 2) Vulnerability: how well equipped is the citizen to deal with the possible outcomes. 3) Familiarity: how much can the citizen draw on previous experiences with similar situations. 4) Complexity: how complex does the citizen perceive her situation to be. 5) Urgency: what time-constraints are there on the citizen getting the issues resolved.The framework can be a useful tool for analysing citizens’ strategies concerning the bureaucratic encounters and their use of self-service systems and the effects thereof for both citizens and authorities. In addition, the framework can be used by researchers and practitioners alike to analyse self-service-systems and multi-channel strategies and service designs to identify how they take the different features of the situation into account.KeywordsCitizen–government interactionDigitalizationTheory-buildingDigital servicesSituation
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Taking Stock of The Situation
The Situational Context of Bureaucratic Encounters
Søren Skaarup1
1 IT University of Copenhagen
Abstract. This paper contributes to e-government research by presenting a con-
ceptual framework of the key-features of the situational context that informs cit-
izens approaches to bureaucratic encounters with government (BEs). The frame-
work is developed through a qualitative hermeneutic approach involving several
different literatures. The framework identifies five basic features of the citizen’s
situation that may affect how citizens approach BE’s: 1) Consequences: the pos-
sible outcomes of the situation 2) Vulnerability: how well equipped is the citizen
to deal with the possible outcomes. 3) Familiarity: how much can the citizen draw
on previous experiences with similar situations. 4) Complexity: how complex
does the citizen perceive her situation to be. 5) Urgency: what time-constraints
are there on the citizen getting the issues resolved.
The framework can be a useful tool for analysing citizens’ strategies concern-
ing the bureaucratic encounters and their use of self-service systems and the ef-
fects thereof for both citizens and authorities. In addition, the framework can be
used by researchers and practitioners alike to analyse self-service-systems and
multi-channel strategies and service designs to identify how they take the differ-
ent features of the situation into account.
Keywords: Citizengovernment interaction, Digitalization, Theory-building,
Digital services, Situation
Submitted to the EGOV 2022 Conference
1 Introduction and background
Citizens increasingly conduct their business with government online [1]. Under-
standing citizens’ strategies and behaviors for these encounters is important to improve
the quality of service, to optimize efficiency and effectiveness and to ensure an acces-
sible, inclusive, and fair access to government and government services for all citizens.
Citizens encounter government in a wide range of contexts and for a wide range of
reasons. In this paper, the focus is on “bureaucratic encounters” (BE) [2-3]. This is
where most people have direct experience with government. Much work on bureau-
cratic encounters focus on face-to-face encounters. However, as Nass and Moon have
shown [4-5], people unwittingly apply social and human attributes to interactive sys-
tems such as self-service systems. Thus, interactions with self-service systems may
qualify as encounters with proxies for humans and the organizations they represent. In
this paper, “Encounters” therefore covers all types of “bureaucratic” interactions be-
tween citizens and authorities, no matter what channels are used.
When citizens engage with government to seek information, to apply for a benefit or
a service or to fulfill some obligation, they do so in a wider context, or “situation”.
The situation is the circumstances or events in the citizen’s life that gives rise to the
need for engaging with the authority or which constitutes the context for this engage-
ment when the BE is initiated by the authority. The situation is the context for the BE ,
it includes the citizens expectations for the BE and the possible consequences of the BE
but does not include the BE itself. An understanding of the “situation” is a key element
in understanding approaches to bureaucratic encounters [6-9], alongside citizens’ needs
and goals for the encounter [10] and the skills and resources they are able to bring to
the encounter [11].
Citizens’ strategies and behaviors in relation to these encounters have in the e-gov-
ernment literature, primarily been studied from a channel choice
perspective [9, 11-
13]. In the e-government literature [6-9, 11-17] as well as in the medium-theory liter-
ature [18], focus has often been on the nature of tasks citizens have to go through and
particularly on their complexity and ambiguity, and on how that affects citizens choices
and behaviors in relation to their BEs. The “situation” has achieved less attention and
the literature has not arrived at a unified set of features that characterize the situation.
Ebbers, Jansen & Pieterson [6] identifies: Urgency (time pressure), need for closure
(need to complete task), and the task at hand (the nature of the problem or the interac-
tion). Ebbers, Pieterson & Noordman [7] includes availability/channel constraints and
emotions (which are not very well defined). They also talk of the “contextual situation”
without further unfolding this concept. Pieterson & Ebbers [8] also include im-
portance(the personal relevance of the matter to the citizen). Lindgren et al [14] high-
lights Goodsell’s use of the “lateral dimension” as part of the scope of the encounter.
As Pieterson [9] has pointed out, “choice” implies an essentially rational and conscious selec-
tion between options, and this oversimplifies the issue. Pieterson and most later authors in the
field, use the term “behaviour” instead. I use the terms behaviour and “approaches”. Neverthe-
less, the name of the subfield of e-government research is known under the name Channel-
choice, so I will use the that as a label for the literature involved.
This is the impact the service the encounter is about may have on the citizen’s life.
Lindgren et al [14] argues that this concept is understudied and under-theorized. In
general, I will argue in this paper, that this goes for many of the concepts applied to
characterize the situation, they are fuzzy, underdeveloped, and under-studied, empiri-
cally as well as theoretically.
Expanding on this previous work I will propose a revised framework for describing
the “situation” as an important part of the background for citizens choices and strategies
in relation to their bureaucratic encounters.
This paper addresses the need for citizen-centred research as well as native theory
development within e-government studies, which has been stated repeatedly in the lit-
erature [16, 19-22]. It also addresses the need for more theoretical work to fully under-
stand citizens strategies and behaviors for the BE, for reviews and revisions of existing
Channel Choice models and for the development of new models [13].
The paper contributes to the e-government literature by presenting a conceptual
framework of aspects of the situation that are important for citizens and their ap-
proaches to bureaucratic encounters. Scholars can use this framework to investigate the
effects for citizens of applying different technologies in the BE. Practitioners can use
the framework in the design of self-service systems, the organizational designs of BE
service delivery, and in the design of multichannel strategies.
The rest of the paper is structured as follows: Section two outlines the method ap-
plied for the literature review. In section three I review the literature and construct the
conceptual framework. Section three falls in three parts. Section 3.1 reviews and dis-
cuss how the literature construes the features of the task. Section 3.2 does the same for
the situation. In section 3.3 the conceptual framework is created. Section four contains
a brief discussion, suggestions for application of the framework and future research and
a discussion of the limitations of the study.
2 Method
The framework presented here is an artefact developed through a “hermeneutic lit-
erature review” [23], based on the principles of the hermeneutic circle [24], synthesis-
ing theory and findings from previous research.
The selection and search of these literatures is based on a set of initial assumptions
(table 1) founded in previous literature readings, supplemented by experiences from my
career as a civil servant serving citizens at the frontlines.
Table 1. Initial assumptions
Inspired by
The trigger for initiating a bureaucratic encounter are circumstances or
events in the citizens life that gives rise to the need for a service, bene-
fit or permit from government, or the need to fulfil some obligation
with government.
Katz et al 1975 [2], Good-
sell 2018 [3], Hassenfeld
The circumstances and needs that gives rise to the BE may affect the
citizen’s approach to the encounter as well as her abilities to handle it
Pieterson 2009 [9], Madsen
& Kræmmergaard 2015 [15]
Citizens are rarely experts in the rules, regulations, and procedures of
relevance for the encounter
Lindgren, et al 2019 [14]
A fundamental condition for the BE is the power-asymmetry between
the citizen and the authority
Järvinnen, Larsen og Mor-
tensen [27], Mik-Meyer &
Villadsen [29], Lenk 2002
The review-process included the five steps outlined by Boell & Cecez-Kecmanovic
1) Reading: Based on the initial assumptions and following the example set by Rose
et al. [25], I draw on five different literatures which can shed light on the situational
context for citizens’ bureaucratic encounters: 1) the e-government literature in partic-
ular the channel choice literaturethis is the literature my contribution is aimed at and
it constitutes the largest part of the literature reviewed. 2) The private sector service
encounter literature, 3) The medium theory literature 4) The public administration lit-
erature 5) Sociological literature with a focus on the asymmetries of power in citizen-
authority encounters. Each field of research contributed with perspectives onthe sit-
uation” which could be relevant for the framework..
2) Identifying ideas and concepts of relevance for the research objective and eval-
uating how they might relate to the emerging conceptual framework. Focus here was
on ideas and concepts that described features of “the situation”.
3) Critically assessing the literature to identify what could be considered founda-
tional features of the situation.
4) Developing and revising the framework as additional concepts and ideas are
identified and evaluated. The framework began with considerably more elements and
more overlap between concepts. Narrowing it down was a question of identifying what
could be consider basic features.
5) Searching based on references and new perspectives found in the literature con-
sulted so far.
These steps were applied iteratively and not necessarily in the order presented here.
Searching, reading, analysing, and framework development were closely intercon-
During this iterative process of searching, reading, and analysis, I synthesised the
framework through a series of revisions and elaborations. The process stopped when
saturation was reached, and no further dimensions for the framework were identified
An interpretive, hermeneutic approach will always and unavoidably rely on the re-
searcher’s pre-understanding. What is important is to make these pre-understandings
explicit, as has been done here with the initial assumption.
The initial assumptions have also served as a point of departure for seeking alterna-
tive perspectives on the encounter that are not usually represented in the e-government
literature. At the same time, the selection of literature has been limited by these as-
sumptions. Other literatures, such as the service-design and digital-design literatures,
could have provided additional insights. However, the intention of this study has not
been to conduct an exhaustive survey of all relevant literatures but, through a limited
search of selected literatures, to provide a framework that provides a more basic under-
standing of the role of the situational context for the BE.
3 Conceptual framework
The result of the literature review is a conceptual framework intended to serve as a
foundation and reference point for further investigation [31]. The framework identifies
the key aspects of the situation that may influence citizens’ approaches to the BE. Table
2 presents this framework.
Table 2: The situation framework
Consequences have to do with the possible outcomes: Will the citizen
get or loose a benefit? Will her application for a permit denied or ap-
proved? Has she filed out her tax-papers correctly, or will she get a fine?
Will she be treated well, or will she be treated badly? What matters here
is the citizens perception of the possible outcomes and their likelihood
more than what is formally possible or likely
[3, 8, 52, 53]
Vulnerability has to do with the citizen’s perception of how well
equipped she is to deal with the possible effects of undesirable out-
comes, be they substantive (such as not receiving a benefit) or affective
(lack of respect, recognition, stigmatisation, etc.).
[26, 28-29, 38,
Is this a familiar situation, a situation the citizen has been in before,
where she can draw on experience and a basic mental map of what is go-
ing to happen (or perhaps draw on the experience of someone close to
him)? Or is it unfamiliar territory?
Does the citizen perceive the situation as more or less complex
[6-7, 37, 39]
Urgency (time)
How important is it for the citizen to get the issues resolved within a
specific time frame
[6, 9]
In this section of the paper, I first report my review of the selected literature and then
establish the framework based on this reading. The first part of the review (section 3.1)
focus on what the literature has to say about the influence of the task and its character-
istics on the choice of channels, the second part (section 3.2) on the features of the
situation and its characteristics on channel choice. Finally, in section 3.3, the framework
is established.
3.1 The task and its characteristics
In the channel choice literature [6-9, 13, 39] (see [15] for an overview). the situation
is one among several dimensions that affect citizens choice of channel(s) for the BE.
Other dimensions that are frequently included are channel characteristics / channel re-
lated factors, task characteristics. personal characteristics (age, education, gender), and
The first attempts to explain medium-strategies and -choices by their context focused
on the characteristics of the task(s) to be performed and came from medium theory [18],
claiming that particular media would be chosen for particular types of tasks. As the
subsequent critique of this approach showed (see [32] and [33]), there is no straightfor-
ward task-medium fit. Tasks cannot simply be classified according to objective criteria,
and people choose different mediations for different tasks, as they are perceived in the
situation [8]. Perceptions of the task and the situation are closely interrelated. In addi-
tion, people are generally pragmatic in their evaluations of different elements of a ser-
vice and may prefer some types of service for some tasks or some stages of a task and
other types of service for other tasks or stages [34].
The channel choice literature has generally agreed that complexity and ambiguity
are the key features of a task in the context of channel choice What constitutes com-
plexity and ambiguity has not, however, been quite settled.
Pieterson & Van Dijk [39] define complexity objectively as the number of interre-
lated steps necessary to complete a task. Ebbers, Pieterson & Noordman [7] expands it
to also encompass the degree of uncertainty about tasks, inputs processes and outcomes.
[6] further elaborates by adding the amount of information that has to be transferred.
A conceptualization of complexity as the number of steps necessary to complete a
task or the amount of information to be transferred while easy to operationalize, renders
complexity a criterion divorced from both the citizen involved (and her skills, re-
sources, and experiences) and the situational context and any influence that may have
on the citizen’s perceptions of complexity. The inclusion of the degree of uncertainty
about the task inputs, process, and outcomes, greatly expands the concept from some-
thing essentially countable to something essentially experiential, however it is the ob-
jective definition that has generally been applied in the empirical studies reviewed.
Backlund [37] defines the complexity of a system as “the effort (as it is perceived)
that is required to understand and cope with the system. Here complexity is in the eye
of the beholder and her perception may change over time, or with the situation.
The level of cognitive load, the effort required, and the perceived complexity will
arguably always depend to some degree on the individual doing the cognition and on
how many cognitive resources she can bring to the task, as well as on the circumstances
and demands of the situation. Complexity arises then both from the citizens subjective
experiences with and perceptions of her life-situation, and from the way the authorities
and services involved are organized, designed, and practiced. Potential tasks and steps
may arise both from the wider situation and from the way the organizational context.
Many aspects of the situation may lead to it being perceived as complex and this may
vary considerable from person to person and may even change during the encounter.
Daft & Lengel [18] define ambiguity as the degree to which multiple conflicting
interpretations of the information exist. They see the reduction of uncertainty and am-
biguity (which they call “equivocality”) as two important aspects of communication.
When the problem is uncertainty, we know what kind of questions to ask and what
information we need, and more information may help. When the problem is ambiguity,
we are not sure what questions to ask (we don’t know what we don’t know), what in-
formation to seek, or how to interpret the information we have, and any new data may
increase uncertainty, rather than reducing it. Citizens bureaucratic encounters with gov-
ernment will often be characterized by low domain-skills [11]. Citizens lack the expe-
rience and “mental map” to help them confidently translate their situation into the way
services etc. are organized, and to plan, ask questions, evaluate information, and navi-
gate the encounter. This may contribute to a sense of ambiguity.
In Daft and Lengel’s definition of ambiguity it arises from the knowledge of com-
peting interpretations. This entails that citizen will have to be aware of such competing
interpretations. However, it may also be the mere possibility of conflicting interpreta-
tions that gives rise to a sense of ambiguity. The citizen may only be aware of one
interpretation (her own) but at the same time have a feeling that this may not be the
only possible one or indeed the correct one.
Ebbers, Pieterson & Nordmann [7] adopts Daft & Lengel’s definition but also talk
about “problem ambiguity”, which they describe as not feeling sure of how to interpret
the information one gets about what to do. The “problem” here seems to be solving the
concrete tasks involved in the BE. Problem ambiguity could also be applied to the more
basic issue of translating the circumstances of the citizen’s situation into a “problem”
or set of problems which fits categorization of the world seen from the authority’s per-
spective [38]. This could be a major source of situational ambiguity .
Ambiguity then arises primarily from how the citizen’s frame of reference for the
encounter matches what the authority presents. It is not an independent feature of the
situation in the same way as complexity is. Reducing ambiguity may require some de-
gree of interaction and exchange of views and perspectives, in order to “overcome dif-
ferent frames of reference or clarify ambiguous issues and change understanding in a
timely manner[18:560], what Kock [49] calls schema alignment.
Ambiguity is always a possibility [33], but if it does not surface in the situation, it
has no effect in that particular case. However, when it does, it may even contribute to
a feeling of the situation being biased against the citizen or potentially unfair, due to a
sense of lack of control over the situation. [50].
3.2 The situation and its characteristics
While the characteristics of “the task” have been extensively studied in the literature,
the characteristics of the situation are considerably less developed, theoretically as well
as empirically. The channel choice literature identifies, as we have seen, urgency, need
for closure, the task at hand, emotions, and importance. And, from the public admin-
istration literature, we get the “lateral scope” or potential consequences of the encoun-
ter. In this section I will discuss these aspects of the situation, as well as the additional
and foundational aspect of the power-asymmetries between the citizen and the au-
thorities as well as the role of the citizen’s familiarity with the situation.
Urgency and the need for closure
Pieterson [9] as well as Ebbers et al [6], see urgency only as a matter of time; how
quickly does the matter that gives rise to the BE have to be resolved.
Ebbers, Pieterson and Nordmann [51:192] (quoting Kruglanksi [40]) defines need
for closure as a definite answer on some topic, any answer as opposed to confusion
and ambiguity”. Ebbers et al [6], describes it as a need to reduce uncertainty by finish-
ing the task as soon as possible. This makes the difference between this and urgency
somewhat fuzzy.
In the literature, urgency is a matter of time-constraints and the need for closure is a
feeling of the importance of getting the issues definitively resolved. Where urgency can
be considered a feature of the situation. The need for closure is a need [10] which must
arguably derive from some othermore fundamental - feature of the situation.
The task at hand
“The task at hand” is in the literature described in terms of the nature of the problem
/ interaction: is it difficult, important, or complex to solve/perform? [6]. In this con-
strual, it is not clear why this should be a separate aspect of the situation and could not
be covered by complexity (see above) and importance (see below).
Availability/channel constraints
Availability/channel constraints has to do with the limitations and possibilities of
choice of channel. This includes the availability of the channel at the particular time
and place where the citizen has to choose, the distance to the channel (for physical
contact points) and wait times (contact speed) [35]. Availability and constraints are a
product both of situational factors like time or location and of the organizational de-
sign of the service like opening hours, office locations, and wait-times.
Ebbers, Pieterson and Nordmann [7], describe emotions important in consumer be-
havior. They distinguish between negative emotions; anger, fear, sadness and shame
and positive emotions: contentment, happiness, pride, and love. Citizens’ emotions are
somehow connected to the different channel’s they may use for the BE, but this con-
nection is not entirely clear. The concept and role of emotions are generally underde-
veloped in the channel choice literature.
The role of emotions has received considerable attention in the private sector service
literature. Drawing on appraisal theory, Chase & Dasu [52-53] describe how emotions
are both input to and output of the encounter. They argue that what emotions are in-
volved depend on whether the encounter has the potential to improve the situation or
make it worse, is associated with a potential penalty or a reward, whether is a significant
situation or not, whether the possible consequences can be difficult to cope with or not,
on how much influence the individual has over the encounter and its outcome and on
the perceived likelihood of all of the above. All of this are aspects of the situation and
of its possible consequences. As with need for closure, rather than being a fundamental
feature of the situation, emotions must derive from some more fundamental aspects of
the situation.
Pieterson & Ebbers [8] describe importance as the personal relevance of the matter
to the citizen. It drives a need for closure. Again, the importance must follow from some
more fundamental feature what it is in the situation that makes it important.
The lateral dimensionthe potential impact of the encounter
Goodsell [3] talks about the scope of the encounter in two dimensions a horizontal
dimensions the time it takes before the issues are solved ,and a lateral dimension, the
potential impact that getting or not getting the service, benefit etc., which the encounter
may have on the citizen’s life.
Lindgren et al [14] argue that the lateral dimension is understudied and under-theo-
rized. In general, this appears to be the case for many of the concepts applied in the
channel choice literature to characterize the situation, they are fuzzy, underdeveloped,
and under-studied, empirically as well as theoretically, and it is not entirely clear that
they are all basic features of the situation.
Issues of power, problems, and identities
To understand the nature of the situation, it is important to remember that BE occurs
in situations often characterized by a clear asymmetry of power [28-29] and that the
outcome of the BE may have serious consequences for the citizen, not only substantially
(getting a benefit or a service or not) but also with regards to the citizens sense of self
[38]. The BE is often the locus of a transformation, of citizens “troubles” into “prob-
lems” that the authority can recognize and address and of identities [54]. As Lipsky
puts it in the context of encounters with street level bureaucrats : “People come to street
level bureaucrats as unique individuals with different life experiences, personalities,
and current circumstances. In the encounters … they are transformed into clients
[55:59].”Clients tend to experience their needs as individual problems and their de-
mands as individual expressions of expectations and grievances. They often expect
treatment appropriate to individuals. Street level bureaucrats experience clients’ prob-
lems as calls for categories of action and their demands are perceived as components
of aggregates.[55]:60. In this transformation, certain aspects of the citizen and her
situation are selected as relevant and others as irrelevant [29]. The situation surrounding
a BE may thus entail some degree of personal vulnerability for the citizen [26:9] .
Skaarup 2020 [11], argues that citizens often find themselves lacking domain skills
when they engage in bureaucratic encounters with government. They have insufficient
experience with and knowledge of the service, the authority, the channels and most
importantly, the situation they are facing. They may never have been in this situation
before or have been a considerable time ago and lack the metal map that may allow
them to confidently do things in their own. This establishes familiarity as a key feature
of the situation. Both uncertainty and ambiguity are in part products of unfamiliarity.
And unfamiliarity may create or add to a sense of the complexity of the situation.
3.3 Establishing the conceptual framework
Based on the reading of the selected literature outlined above, I have constructed a con-
ceptual framework which aims to identify the basic features of the situation of im-
portance for citizens approaches to their bureaucratic encounters with government.
1 Consequences
The need for closure, emotions, importance, and the lateral dimension all appears to
address the same underlying aspects of the situation. The all have to do with what is at
stake for the citizen. If much is at stake, it may be important to get things resolved - to
get closure, and that may give rise to emotions.
The question then becomes what it means that “something is at stake”. Both God-
sell’s lateral dimension and “importance” has to do with consequences, what happens
if I get/do not get what I need or want? Consequences in turn depends both on the
possible outcomes and on the citizen’s situated vulnerability in the face of those out-
The possible outcomes and vulnerability may vary independently - for a vulnerable
citizen the same consequences may appear more serious than for a less vulnerable citi-
zen. Therefore, in this framework, I will limit “consequencesto the possible outcomes
of the BE, independent of the effect those consequence may have for the citizen: Do I
get or loose a benefit? Is my application for a permit denied or approved? Have I filed
my taxes correctly, or will I get a fine or have to pay back-taxes? Will I be treated well,
or will I be treated badly? What matters here is the citizens perception of the possible
outcomes and their likelihood
, more than what is formally possible or likely. These
perceptions are shaped both by the citizen’s experiences with the situation as well as
by her perceptions of the laws and regulations that determines the possible outcomes
and her expectations of how the process will unfold and how any caseworkers she may
encounter may treat her.
2 Vulnerability
Vulnerability has to do with the citizen’s perceptions of how well equipped she is to
deal with the possible effects of undesirable outcomes, be they substantive (such as not
Likelihood is here not meant in a statistical sense. As Loewenstein et al [58] argues, in our ordinary
lives we do not deal in statistical probabilities but with “risk-as-feelings”.
receiving a benefit) or affective (lack of respect or recognition, stigmatization, etc.).
Heimer [60] argues that vulnerability is an expression of the amount of risk incurred by
engaging in a particular action. However, this seems to conflate risk (the likelihood that
something happens combined with the consequences of it happening) [66] and vulner-
ability, which I would argue should be kept separate. Vulnerability may be alleviated
by institutional safety nets and the citizens access to resources (this may be her own
resources or the resources of others that she can draw upon). If the citizen has few
resources and if the possible consequences of the outcome have a considerable effect
on her life and or sense of self, then that will affect her approach to the encounter. The
degree of vulnerability may be a more long-term feature of the citizen’s life (e.g., if she
is homeless) or it may be tied to the specific situation (e.g., if she has just lost her job,
or must cope with a death in the family) such situations, in particular if they are new
and unfamiliar to the citizen, may make the citizen less resourceful and more vulnerable
than usual. If little is at stake the consequences of failing are small and the importance
of e.g., lack of skills or other resources may be smaller. If much is at stake, everything
counts and even smaller issues in other parts of the wider framework may take on a
greater importance.
3 Familiarity
Previous experience with the situation, the service, the authority in question or the
channel / systems used may combine to reduce both the perceived complexity and the
perceived consequences and vulnerability. Familiarity may reduce the uncertainty
about the possible consequences and the sense of vulnerability may be decreased if
previous experience shows that the consequences are usually manageable, and the citi-
zen has been able cope well with them.
4 Complexity
The situation itself may introduce complexity, a complexity that may be exacerbated
by unfamiliarity, by insufficient skills, and a complexity which may feed ambiguity.
The organization, design and implementation of the services involved in the BE may
increase or decrease this complexity. It may be difficult in practice to separate the situ-
ation-induced complexity from the complexity arising from the way the authority and
services presents themselves. However, I have kept complexity as a situational factor,
as it is important to profile the sources of complexity that does not arise from the au-
thority but from the citizens life and situation.
5 Urgency
I distinguish between constraints created by the design and organizational setup of
the service(s) involved in the BEsuch as opening hours, wait times and geographical
locations of offices, and the constraints introduced by the citizens situation. The only
situational constraint that is entirely citizen related in the literature is how important it
is for the citizen to solve her problem quickly, possible within a deadline given not
by the authorities but by circumstances in the citizens life such as for example getting
a new passport before she has to travel. In this framework this constraint will be labeled
“urgency”, to differentiate it from the constraints introduced by the institutional setup.
Summing up
Citizens approach the bureaucratic encounter within the context of a situation in their
lives that affects their behaviours and choices. At one end of the spectrum, the situation
may be unfamiliar and appear complex, the potential consequences may be considera-
ble, the citizen may be vulnerable in the situation, and it may be important to have it
resolved within a specific time frame. At the other end of the spectrum, the citizen may
have been in the same situation before, perhaps recently, she may perceive the com-
plexity of the situation as low, the potential consequences are negligible or she has the
resources to handle them whatever they are, and she is not in a hurry to have the issue
resolved. Where on this spectrum the situation falls (and there may be many ways of
combining the different aspects of the framework), may have significant influence on
how the individual citizen approach the bureaucratic encounter, what emotions are in-
volved, what channels she will use and in what order, what help and assistance she
might need and so on.
4 Discussion and conclusion
This paper set out to establish a conceptual framework for describing and analysing
the situation that gives rise to the need for engaging in bureaucratic encounters with
government. Through an analysis of several literatures, I have constructed a framework
at an analytical level that allows it to be applied to and adequately characterize the key
features of the situation that influences citizens approaches to the BE. This is of course
a considerable simplification of the multitude of circumstances and experiences that
characterizes citizens’ real-life situations. The framework is a shorthand, a tool for anal-
ysis, and not a substitute for studying and understanding citizens real-life situations in
more detail and on their own terms.
The framework is, in essence, technology neutral. Consequences and vulnerability
are not determined by technology or citizens experience with technology but by laws,
rules and regulation and the circumstances of the citizens life-situation. The importance
of the citizens familiarity with the situation may be alleviated by the design of services
and citizen-facing IT-systems to the extent that they help citizens analyse and under-
stand their situation better, but the degree of familiarity, as a circumstance of the situa-
tion is not dependent on the technology and designs applied. The importance of the
time-constraints that may exist in the situation may be reduced if the service is easily
and readily available and the issues can be resolved quickly. But the time-constraint
itself is not created by technology or the design of services.
It is well-described in the channel choice literature that citizens may choose different
channels for different services or tasks or for different parts of a service or task. The
framework constructed here indicates that channel-behaviour may be driven in part by
features of the situation. However, the circumstances of the situation are only one of
several sets of factors that may influence citizens’ behaviour in the face of bureaucratic
encounters. Other factors are the skills and resources the citizen bring to the encounter,
the needs and goals citizens have for the encounter, previous experiences that citizens
may draw upon, what constitutes socially sanctioned and appropriate behaviour in the
situation, and how the service and IT-systems involved are organized, designed, imple-
mented, and practiced. All of this may in various ways influence the citizen’s percep-
tion of the aspects of the situation outlined in the framework. And all of these factors
must be taken into account when deciding to what extent and how services could and
should be digitalized.
Understanding the features of the situation that affects citizens approaches to bu-
reaucratic encounters is important for the design of all types of services, regardless of
the degree of digitalization involved.
4.1 Suggestions for application and further research
The framework provides a valuable tool for e-government researchers to study chan-
nel-behaviour and e-government adoption and for studying the authorities’ strategies
and choices in designing systems and services. The framework could also serve as a
tool for practitioners in designing and evaluating systems, services, and strategies.
The framework contributes to the e-government field in addressing the need for cit-
izen-centred research[20-21, 61], and in engaging other theoretical fields to advance e-
government theory building [62-63]. To bring the field further forward, I propose a
research agenda for the e-government community with the following research ques-
Does the framework have ecological validity, can it be used to adequately
describe citizens’ real-life perceptions of the influence of their situations
for their approaches to bureaucratic encounters?
How do the features of the situation interact with each other, with citizen’s
need and goals for the bureaucratic encounter, with their skills and re-
sources and with the way the citizens perceive the organization of the au-
thorities and the design of their services? This could be explored both the-
oretically and empirically.
How and to what extent can the design and organisation of services con-
tribute to the reduction of situational complexity (which goes beyond the
complexity of the services in themselves), to addressing issues arising from
low familiarity and to address issues arising from high vulnerability.
In what types of bureaucratic encounters / with what types of services are
issues of familiarity, complexity, and vulnerability particularly salient and
do this disproportionately effect particular groups of citizens.
What effects can improvements in the way the authorities takes the aspects
of the situation into account when designing and organizing services have
for citizen’s perceptions of service-quality, for the job-satisfaction of front-
line staff, for the creation of public value and for the efficiency and effec-
tiveness of the service delivery.
Apart from answering these specific questions, such research could also contribute
to further refinement and elaboration of the framework through its application to em-
pirical data.
Practitioners could apply the framework as a tool in the design of services and sys-
tems. They could, for example for investigating the importance of the different aspects
of the situation for a given target groups, different services, or different ways of imple-
menting services, to inform the designing a new service/system, as input to a multi-
channel service design, or for evaluating existing systems and services. While the de-
sign of systems and services will always have to be based on an authoritative interpre-
tation of the law, and on procedures established by law or other binding regulations, a
good design will have to take into account that citizens will often only have a vague
and maybe erroneous idea of what the law actually says, what substantive consequences
may actually be possible and even to some extent how vulnerable this makes them.
Thus, it is important for designers to take the features of the situation into account.
4.2 Limitations and concluding comments
Most of the literature cited is based on the U.S. context, and the researcher’s own
experiences are from a Danish public sector context. However, the concepts of conse-
quences, vulnerability, familiarity, complexity, and urgency are, I would argue, univer-
sal. They may play out differently and have different consequences for citizens choices
and strategies dependent on the cultural and institutional context. This is an important
point with the framework. It does not say what individual citizens will do for particular
encounters with particular bureaucracies in particular cultures, but what situational fac-
tors may influence the choices and strategies.
While I have investigated a range of literatures in this paper, my aim has not been
an exhaustive investigation of them all, but through an interpretive, hermeneutic ap-
proach to identify salient and important perspectives on the situational context for citi-
zens’ approaches to the bureaucratic encounter. Through this, I hope to have provided
a framework for a more holistic investigation and understanding of citizens perspec-
tives. The real test of the usefulness of this framework will be its application on empir-
ical data and in practical settings, and I hope such applications will contribute to the
improvement and elaboration of the framework.
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