1969 Michael Lipsky
Street level bureaucrats and discretionary power
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Some concepts keep reappearing in discussions and scholarly work on the social work profession. Two of those are street level bureaucracy and discretionary power. Both go back to the work of Michael Lipsky. This North American scholar struggled, together with his fellow political scientists, with the question of how to quantify the impact of government on citizens. There was some concern about a problematic low impact due to weak implementation of policy decisions. This concern is illustrated by the subtitle of a 1973 publication: Implementation: how great expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland.
Lipsky’s work in this area was foreshadowed by a presentation he held at the annual conference of the American political science association in 1969 in New York. This presentation and paper already incorporated the two key concepts of his work, which would become widespread after the book publication in 1980: Street-level bureaucracy, dilemmas of the individual in public services.

Lipksy introduced the term street level bureaucrat to refer to all those government officials (and those from public services) who are in daily contact with citizens and have a relatively high impact on their lives. In his original study he focuses on members of the police, teachers and lower court judges, but later Lipsky and others expanded this to include social workers. These are the people that shape citizens’ experience of government, who “represent government to the people”. They are, in the words of two Dutch scholars, the business cards of government. Sometimes this is taken quite literally, as in the case of neighbourhood police in Antwerp, Belgium.
They are not only the business cards: Lipsky also describes them as the real policy makers. Policy can be discussed and written down higher up in government structures, but it only becomes real through the work of street level bureaucrats and the way they translate policy into action. This refers to the second key concept of Lipsky’s work: discretionary power. One of the characteristics of the work street level bureaucrats do is that they have a high level of autonomy, that they can decide the details of their job and are only subject to Taylorism to a limited degree.

Lipsky, together with his PhD student Jeffrey Prottas, also argues that street-level bureaucrats develop routines, habitual ways of handling cases, which he describes as ‘people-processing’. This idea has been subject to criticism and has also given rise to professional critiques of street-level bureaucracy.

Many were inspired by Lipsky’s work and applied his concepts in their practice. Among them are Yeheskel Hasenfeld, Kathryn Ellis and Tony Evans, to name only a few. Scholarly social work publications are rich with references to Lipsky.
With the increased use of information technology in government and public services, scholars have argued that there is a transition from street level bureaucracy to screen level bureaucracy, encompassing a reduction in the discretionary power of professionals. An example can be seen in public libraries. Whereas previously, if you returned a book that was overdue, you might forego the fine at the librarian’s discretion, perhaps if you were recognised as a frequent and reliable borrower. Nowadays, the computer system is merciless.

Recently, Tony Evans researched how street level bureaucracy developed in the British social work context and the influence of new public management. Contrary to Lipsky’s observations in the US some forty years earlier, Evans found that often local managers and practitioners shared a professional culture and worked in partnership to defend discretionary power and professional values. He also argues that information technology in social work is, like any other management strategy, limited in its capacity to constrain discretion.

This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 05-2011
Date of latest revision: 06-2019

Extra From the point of perspective of history of social work, an interesting smaller part of Lipsky`s work is his book with Steven Smith in 1993 on Nonprofits for hire. The authors describe how in the 1960s and 1970s, social services changed from being funded by independent private charities to being contracted by the government and paid through tax-money. The book also covers the advantages and disatvanges of this development.
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