Can Street-level Bureaucrats improve Policies?

Published by Antoine Labeyrie on

What you want to understand… 🤔

  • What are street-level bureaucrats?
  • When and how can street-level bureaucrats improve public policies?
  • What risks does street-level bureaucrats’ discretion entail?
  • How can they be held accountable?
  • Can technology help them do a better job and improve public policies?

In 1969, Michael Lipsky defined street-level bureaucrats (SLB) as civil servants who work in constant interaction with citizens. They have a high level of discretion in decision-making when implementing a policy and their actions impact extensively the lives of public service users (Lipsky, 1969). Indeed SLB can influence the quality of policy that is to say how a policy meets people’s demands from and for the society they live in. Their power to shape how a policy is delivered to citizens makes them major actors of the policy process i.e. the non-linear process through which means and objectives are determined and means are employed to reach those specific objectives. In this essay we will see that SLB can improve the quality of policy (I) despite some limits and criticisms (II) that can however be overcome (III).

I. Street-level bureaucrats can improve policies

As a matter of fact, SLB can positively impact the quality of policy both during its conception through a bottom-up approach and during its implementation thanks to their discretional power.

A. Participating in designing public policies

Insofar as a bottom-up or backward mapping approach is adopted, SLB are indispensable. Indeed they are the eyes of the State on the ground thus allowing rooting policies in the reality of people’s daily lives. First of all, we ought to mention the limitations of forward mapping, as described by Richard Elmore in 1979-1980 (Elmore, 1979), to show that a bottom-up approach, for which the participation of SLB is primordial, will result in better policies overall. Forward mapping refers to a policy process where policymakers start by exposing their objectives before specifying what is expecting from SLB to get a satisfactory result with regard to the initial statement of intents. However, this top-down approach relies on the assumption that implementation is controlled from the top, which in reality is not the case. Backward mapping, on the contrary, starts with a presentation of citizens’ demands that need to be addressed with specific policies. Then a set of actions with their expected effects is decided. Throughout the bottom-up approach, the question of how people in charge of implementing policies can achieve their mission is omnipresent. As a result, a decision is made regarding which units of the implementation process are the most capable of having a greater positive effect and thus should get the most resources. Unlike forward mapping, backward mapping assumes that “the closer one is to the source of the problem, the greater is one’s ability to influence it” which justifies the need for greater discretional power given to SLB (Elmore, 1979: 605). We can now understand that backward mapping seems to be the most appropriate approach to policymaking. Indeed it gives enough space to SLB to give their feedbacks and insights on specific situations thus connecting decisions made by policymakers to the reality on the ground. As a matter of fact most bureaucrats and technocrats don’t work in contact with the people that they serve unlike SLB. Therefore, we can observe information asymmetry regarding what happens on the ground and that’s why SLB are essential in informing policymakers about people’s everyday life reality.

B. Discretion as a means to improve policies’ implementation

When speaking of implementation itself, SLB have discretional power which Keith Carrington defines as a decision-maker’s freedom to both “distinguish between several courses of actions” and “decide whether, through rules or one’s judgement, to act or not to act” (Carrington, 2005: 143). I argue that SLB’s discretion participates in the quality improvement of policy. According to Braithwaite in 2002, street-level discretion is of paramount importance when delivering policies that address complex phenomena because it produces more consistent outcomes with a policy’s objectives (Braithwaite, 2002).  In fact he argues that directives that are too detailed result in a policy implementation doomed to failure. Braithwaite calls it the iterative pursuit of precision. He instead advocates for more discretion so that SLB can act according to broad principles and not specific rules. To prove his point he compares nursing home decoration standards in Australia and in Illinois, USA. The Australian “homelike environment” standard leads to more satisfaction unlike in the USA where the standard was to have a certain number of pictures on residents’ room walls. By agreeing on giving more discretion to SLB, a focus is put on the end rather than on the means of a policy. SLB can thus act in autonomy and as they feel is the best for public service users, which according to Braithwaite improves the quality of policy. Furthermore, SLB can improve the quality of policy by using their discretion to make policy more easily accepted and respected by citizens. In fact they have the power to accommodate specific situations and thus give a more human nature to the State. Sometimes when a government addresses a major issue that requires radical changes in people’s lives, a transition period is implemented so that the population can adapt to the new norms.  For example, in April 2021 in Québec, Canada, face masks became mandatory for any outdoor activity with several people from different households in red and orange areas. However, a pedagogical effort was asked from police officers at the beginning of the implementation process so that the population can understand, accept and assimilate the new rules. In fact Bruno Cormier, the spokesperson of Saguenay Police Service, declared about the new measure that police officers had to “if necessary, explain to people who didn’t clearly understand or who understood something else […]”.

II. Limitations of street-level bureaucrats’ ability to improve policies

Even though SLB’s participation in the policymaking process and their discretional power can result in higher-quality policies, their great level autonomy can lead to abuses and eventually deteriorates the delivery of a policy.

A. Inequalities in the treatment of public service users

First of all, given the lack of resources allocated to SLB to deliver policies, sometimes they end up treating unequally citizens. For example, as Lael Kaiser pointed out in 1999, SLB may deny benefits to citizens who need them the most because it would require too many resources. In a utilitarian perspective, they would rather process easy cases that are more numerous. Indeed these coping strategies are often used at the expense of some clients who are entitled to benefits and whose needs, that are the greatest, are ignored (Keiser, 1999). Besides, SLB’s coping strategies vary greatly which result in different implementations of a given policy. This discretion may cause unfairness and a lack of understanding among the population as the policy may not be implemented uniformly across a territory. For instance in France, given the lack of time to cover the entirety of the educational program, some teachers can decide to teach only certain parts of the program because they deem them more interesting while other teachers may find other chapters more interesting. As a consequence, pupils don’t get the same preparation for national exams. Therefore, the lack of adequate resources for SLB to perform their mission forces them to adopt coping strategies that can confuse the population about the initial intent of a given policy and eventually citizens may disapprove the policy.

B. Risks of corruption and negative externalities on the state as a whole

Likewise, SLB are subject to corruption in the form of bribes in exchange for not upholding laws i.e. arbitrarily favouring a citizen over another. For instance, in the context of medical treatments, citizens could attempt to pay nurses and doctors off in order to change the allocations of resources in their favour, especially in terms of time and personnel. They can for example ask to get treated directly by a specific surgeon or get their file at the top of the waiting list (Cohen, 2018). Those payments can be called “informal payments” as they are additional to what a patient normally pays for a service he is entitled to (Gaal et al, 2006). In fact SLB make exceptions for patients they consider sympathetic or for whom they take pity, thus letting their personal feelings override their professional responsibility.

Furthermore, since SLB are state representatives, it is risky for the State to leave them too much discretion as some SLB’s wrong deeds could spill over onto the State itself. For instance, police officers make assumptions on who they should stop and search and it turns out that those assumptions can be based on racial stereotypes. In fact, according to figures released by the UK Home Office, in England and Wales black people are 8.9 times more likely to be arrested than white people in 2019-2020. Despite the government acting with the good intention to fight drug networks under Section 60, due to SLB’s discretion the implementation took another turn that wasn’t foreseen by policymakers.

To the argument that SLB enjoy too much discretional power, Lipsky argues, as reported by Lucy Gilson in 2015, that making exceptions is admissible only when it is not motivated by discrimination or favouritism and when SLB possess the right skills and experience to handle the situation professionally (Gilson, 2015). As we will now see, some solutions exist to overcome the difficulties of gathering these conditions.

III. How to overcome these limitations?

Despite the criticisms and limits to street-level bureaucrats’ ability to improve the quality of policy, I argue that overall they can have a positive impact on policy because there exist institutions to keep them accountable and the increasing importance of technology will allow them to better perform their job.

A. Institutions to keep street-level bureaucrats accountable

As a matter of fact SLB are unelected but still wield considerable political power. Therefore the question of accountability arises. To monitor SLB’s discretion, specific institutions should be established according to Sparrow et al in 1990. Accountability can be assessed in terms of compliance with procedures. One may then ask how to ensure compliance from SLB. According to Baldwin in 1990, policymakers should “look to the means of securing compliance” instead of “clinging to the notion that rules shape the world” (p.337) because SLB’s compliance cannot be achieved through implementing more rules to frame all their comings and goings.  That’s why Moore advocates for “supervision, training and evaluation methods” to increase the ability of SLB to improve the quality of policy (Moore, 1990). For example in France, teachers’ compliance with the educational program and national methods of teaching is regularly evaluated during supervisors’ visits in their classroom. SLB can also be held accountable in terms of performance through regular reviews of their outputs by their managers. However, SLB’s role is to implement policies and therefore a policy’s outcomes cannot be entirely attributed to SLB’s actions. Besides, it is difficult for citizens to identify at which point a policy has lost or gain quality. Nonetheless, citizens can give feedbacks in order to improve, if necessary, the quality of policy delivery. For instance, in France since the Yellow Jacket movement in 2018, registers of grievances and public meetings have been reinstated in town halls so that citizens can voice their discontent.  When applicable it can be dealt with at a local level with city councils having some degree of autonomy to make marginal changes in the delivery of policies. Otherwise, grievances are sent to the central government that will address them with new policies that SLB will then have to implement.

B. Technology helps improve street-level bureaucrats’ performance

Technology, under the form of online databases and the Internet, proves useful in tackling the resource shortage issue thus creating better working conditions for SLB to implement policies. In fact computers are used to deal with simple repetitive tasks, especially those dealing with quantifiable data. As a consequence, the administration can free up resources like time and personnel to handle more complex tasks that require human interactions like policing, teaching or providing social welfare. Besides, with the Internet, citizens become more aware of their rights and the different administrative procedures to claim them. Not only does it free up resources but also it addresses the problem of information asymmetry. Indeed citizens can better formulate their demands to SLB and the latter can thus provide more appropriate solutions to their problems which eventually will result in higher public satisfaction. However, it is worth mentioning that in the future more and more tasks performed by humans will be probably assigned to Artificial Intelligence and robots, but we’re not there yet.


We started our demonstration by showing that SLB can improve the quality of policy both during their conception and their implementation. However, we analysed two limits to this argument i.e. SLB’s discretion can lead to abuses of power and an unequal treatment of citizens which can fuel popular dissatisfaction with the State and its policies. We eventually went beyond this opposition in favour or against SLB’s ability to improve the quality of policy by showing that there exist solutions. Indeed SLB can improve the quality of policy insofar as their discretional power is supervised and they have access to enough resources, with technological help, so as to carry out their daily missions in contact with the population.


Baldwin, Robert. Why Rules Don’t Work. The Modern Law Review, vol. 53, n°3, May 1990, p. 337. (Crossref),

Braithwaite, John B. Rules and Principles: A Theory of Legal Certainty. SSRN Electronic Journal, 2002. (Crossref),

Carrington, Keith. Is There a Need for Control? Public Administration Quaterly, vol. 29, n°1/2, 2005, p.143.

Cohen, Nissim. How Culture Affects Street-Level Bureaucrats’ Bending the Rules in the Context of Informal Payments for Health Care: The Israeli Case. The American Review of Public Administration 48, n°2, February 2018, pp. 175–187.

Dodd, Vikram. Black People Nine Times More Likely to Face Stop and Search than White People, The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2020.

Elmore, Richard F. Backward Mapping: Implementation Research and Policy Decisions. Political Science Quarterly, vol. 94, n°4, 1979, p. 601-616. (Crossref),

Gaal, P., Belli, P. C., McKee, M., Szocska, M. Informal payments for health care: Definitions, distinctions, and dilemmas. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 31, 2006, 251-293.

Gilson L. Lipsky’s Street Level Bureaucracy. Chapter in Page E., Lodge M and Balla S (eds) Oxford Handbook of the Classics of Public Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Keiser, L. R. State Bureaucratic Discretion and the Administration of Social Welfare Programs: The Case of Social Security Disability. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, vol. 9, n°1, Jan. 1999, pp. 87–106. (Crossref),

Lipsky, Michael. Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy, Discussion Papers n° 48-69, 1969, p. 45. Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Moore, Scott T. Street-Level Policymaking: Characteristics of Decision and Policy in Public Welfare. The American Review of Public Administration 20, n° 3, September 1990, pp. 191–209.

Sparrow, M. K., Moore, M. H., & Kennedy, D. M.  Beyond 911: A New Era for Policing. NY: BasicBooks, 1990.

St-Gelais, Roby. Port du masque à l’extérieur : la police de Saguenay fera preuve de tolérance – Coronavirus., Accessed 4 Nov. 2021.


1 Comment

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