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Street-Level Bureaucrats: The Face of Policy

January 10, 2024

Street-Level Bureaucrats are the public service (government) employees who interact with citizens directly, and hence the way they interact gives the main impression about the effectiveness of the implementation of public policies. They include -among others- public hospital doctors, police officers, inspectors of businesses, border officials and school teachers.

The term was first introduced by Michael Lipsky, a former professor of political science at MIT. Lipsky said that those bureaucrats have a high level of discretion of public policies, which in many cases lead to the failure of policy implementation, mainly when the gap between what the policy originally aimed to achieve and what those bureaucrats actually practice is wide.

According to Lipsky, there are two reasons for that level of discretion, the first is the specialised role that they are employed to perform, and in many cases in complex and demanding environments they work in, which gives them a high level of personal judgment. The second is that it is practically impossible to monitor the performance of such a large cadre, especially in provinces far from the center in large countries.

For example, a new policy might require early grade schools’ teachers to stay after work to give extra lessons to enhance the reading and math skills for students.  However, without sufficient incentives and monitoring systems, it is next to impossible to implement such a policy. The result might therefore be a high level of discrepancy in implementing these policies due to many reasons.

In order to mitigate the impact of street-level bureaucrats on policy failure, the following should be done:

  • Involvement: They (or of course their representatives) should be involved in the development of policies which they are expected to implement. This would increase the odds that the policies are designed properly, and that their buy-in is obtained.
  • Incentives: There should be an incentive system linked with the implementation of the new policy. New policies introduce changes, which people in most of the cases don’t feel comfortable to embrace. Having an incentive system would definitely help, although alone it does not guarantee success. 
  • Monitoring: New policies usually have indicators to monitor their implementation, these indicators should be cascaded at the bureaucrats level, and should be part of their annual (or semi-annual) performance assessment.
  • Communication: The objectives of the new policy and the justification for its introduction should be communicated properly to the bureaucrats. Social media and messages through mobile applications can be used to reach out to such a large group rather easily and efficiently.
  • Public Education: The public should be informed of the new policies. Ideally, their buy-in would also be sought. When a decision is reached on implementing the policy, the public should be given a clear set of expectations as to the processes involved and what is required. Every effort should be made to eliminate instances of a member of the public having to return on a second day because of missing documents and the like. This step will limit the arbitrary discretion of the bureaucrat and introduce an element of accountability into the overall process.
Author
Mohammad Amawi

Managing Partner at Amawi, Takrouri & Associates

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