In 1980 Michael Lipsky published “Street-level Bureaucracy,” arguing that public policy is often vague and imprecise, and relies on frontline workers to make sense of it on the ground in delivering public services. At the same time, the book is critical of frontline workers for not complying with policy in their use of discretion. Lipsky’s approach has influenced a great deal of subsequent analysis of public service provision, but continues to contain an unresolved tension at its core. If policy is vague, how can discretion be judged non-compliant against it? The street-level bureaucracy approach has tended to seek to resolve this tension by assuming that all public services are fundamentally the same and that all public service workers should use discretion in a particular way. While street-level bureaucracies—front line public services—are similar in that they are subject to policies, operate under conditions of inadequate resources, and afford frontline workers discretion in their work, there are also significant differences between types of public services in the ways they work with policy and the nature and extent of discretion of staff delivering the service. Different services do different things; the nature of the policy they work with varies, and the logic of provision and priorities vary between services. Policy, for instance, may refer to a precise set of instructions, or to setting out particular concerns or broad-brush commitments. Some services, such as benefits provision, are specified in detailed policy which not only sets out what they can do but also how decisions should be made. Others services, such as policing, are subject to a range of policies and concerns often expressed as conflicting demands that have to be balanced and managed in the particular circumstances of their application. And others, mainly human services, are primarily thought of in terms what the professionals within provide, and assumes a logic of service provision to be located in those providing the service. Policy is sometimes more explicit and discretion narrower; it is sometimes looser and relies more on discretion. It may, in some circumstances, be sufficient to refer to policy to understand what services are supposed to do; in other circumstances, policy alone provides a poor picture of what’s expected. Street-level bureaucracy analysis is too broad-brush and cannot capture the range of ideas of compliance in public services. It tends to equate policy with instruction and judgement with organizational thinking, and to see non-compliance as endemic in the use of discretion. In doing this, it fails to appreciate the variety of relationships between policy and public services; the varied extent of discretion in different settings, and the range of concerns and ethical commitments in different public services. Compliance in policy implementation needs to be sensitive to different types of public services and the subsequent variety of commitments and concerns of street-level bureaucrats in those public services.
Jori Pascal Kalkman
Crises are uncertain and disorderly situations, which temporarily destabilize power relations and impede centralized control over operational crisis responders (e.g., firefighters, police officers, paramedics). Consequently, responders wield considerable autonomy and have room to act on their own initiative. They make crucial decisions in frontline crisis operations based on their situational understanding and professional expertise. As such, they are similar to other “frontline workers” (or street-level bureaucrats) in government service. Their important work has attracted increasing attention in crisis management literature, in which three tensions have emerged. The first tension revolves around the nature and extent of frontline discretion. In some studies, these frontline responders are presented as implementers who are considerably constrained by extensive rules, planned routines, and detailed protocols. Other studies, instead, emphasize the independent and proactive behaviors of frontline workers who use their discretionary space to shape crisis response efforts. The second tension centers on the reasons for discretionary actions. Typically, crisis scholars analyze social and rule-based pressures on frontline workers to explain their discretionary actions as they implement public policy. Critics, instead, build on responders’ own stories to grasp their meaning-making attempts and use this as a basis for understanding why and how responders enact their discretionary practices. The final tension concerns the advantages and disadvantages of frontline worker discretion. There is a widespread belief that frontline discretion in crisis response enables much-needed improvisation, creativity, and flexibility, but increased discretion may also raise legitimacy questions and potentially burden frontline workers with complex ethical dilemmas. To move the understanding of frontline workers in crisis management forward, further research is required in several areas. Empirically, frontline workers are increasingly working in transboundary crisis networks, so that more research is necessary to understand how such crisis networks affect frontline discretion. Theoretically, literature on frontline work in crisis management has remained by and large isolated from other micro-level theories on crisis management, even though there are opportunities for fruitful cross-fertilization with adjacent literatures.
As a part of the policy process, implementation follows policy as formulated and decided upon. Three aspects can be distinguished as inherent to the term implementation. The first one regards the temporal order in which implementation in a policy process takes place. The second aspect concerns the causal logic, while the third one is about the form of authority. Policy implementation is looked at and talked about from two fundamentally contrasting perspectives. One can be called an “ideal” perspective, the other a realistic one. “Ideal” stands here for a use of the term implementation without further reflection; the phenomena the term refers to are taken for granted. By contrast, the alternative perspective can be labeled as a realistic one. This perspective is a construction as well, but instead of taking things for granted it invites for empirical observation and testing. From an ideal perspective implementation is viewed as following instructions. Implementation is seen as a separate stage, identifiable as such. Inputs are supposed to determine outputs, while authority is exercised in a hierarchical relationship. From a realistic perspective implementation is seen as practice. It is approached as a multilevel phenomenon. Results of a policy process are explained by a variety of factors and social mechanisms. Authority is exercised as based on various sources. Both the view on implementation as following instructions and its realistic opposite shed a relevant light on implementation and its place in the policy process. Each view can be found in the practice as well as the study of the policy process. In the expectations about national politics the view on implementation as following instructions may be more observed than the alternative view, while at the street level of government the opposite can be supposed. However, these concern empirical questions. As far as implementation research is concerned, the normative appeal of the assumptions underlying the view on implementation as following instructions makes that view still occurring. At the same time, these assumptions have been challenged rather fundamentally, both at a theoretical and empirical level. The opposite character of the two views has consequences for the ways implementation and its place within the policy process are understood, but also for the ways in which variation in the results of policy processes is explained. Ultimately, understanding and explaining those results are enhanced when an approach is adopted in which elements from both views have been incorporated.