T06P05 - Desk Power: Insights Into Bureaucrats' Autonomy

Topic : Policy Implementation

Panel Chair : Tobias Eule - tobias.eule@oefre.unibe.ch

Panel Second Chair : Federica Infantino - federica.infantino@ulb.ac.be

Objectives and Scientific Relevance of the panel

Call for papers

Session 1


Tobias Eule - tobias.eule@oefre.unibe.ch - University of Bern - Switzerland

Bureaucrats behaving badly - using administrative traditions to legitimise adherence to old ways

Prudence R Brown - p.brown3@uq.edu.au - University of Queensland - Australia

This paper examines how bureaucrats use their autonomy to respond to the inevitable tensions between implementing new ways of working and bureaucratic traditions. I suggest that a significant barrier to change is that they do so by co-opting other traditions, such as accountability, to legitimise adherence to old ways of working. 


My case study centres on the implementation of new approaches to tackling major inequalities experienced by Australian indigenous people. In common with elsewhere in the world, Australian Indigenous people experience significant levels of social inequality, however government efforts to date have failed to make significant inroads. For policies and programs to succeed in reducing inequality, policy actors must find ways to increase levels of ownership by Indigenous peoples in the policies and programs that target them. To date, governments have demonstrated limited capacity to adjust their ways of working, and underlying institutional constraints work against meaningful participation in policy design and implementation.


I use the Logics of Critical Explanation (LCE) approach to analyse a recent national trial in remote Indigenous Australia aimed, in part, at a more participatory approach to development efforts. Drawing on documents and interviews with elite policy actors I analyse the policy world through three explanatory ‘logics’ which focus on the ontological assumptions, norms and narratives that sustain the policy practices complicit in the repeated failure to address inequity effectively.

Creaming practices at the frontline of welfare-to-work policies : An exploration of social workers’ autonomy in a social assistance organization in Belgium.

Valentine Duhant - vduhant@ulb.ac.be - Université Libre de Bruxelles, GERME - Belgium

This paper aims at analyzing the autonomy granted to street-level bureaucrats in the implementation of activation policies in the field of social assistance in Belgium. Since the 1990s, the allocation of social benefits is characterized by the paradoxical dialectic between the formalization of assistance, through the increasing uses of formal contracts between recipients and local welfare agencies, and the emphasis on the development of beneficiaries’ and social workers’ autonomy, through processes of individualization of policy implementation. Indeed, in Belgium, a law voted in 2002 created a “right to social integration”, which aims at integrating beneficiaries of social assistance on the job market on a case-by-case basis and grants a huge autonomy to social workers in charge of its implementation. Nevertheless, final decisions regarding the individual cases of recipients are taken by a board of local politicians at the head of local social assistance agencies (“Centres Publics d’Intégration Sociale” – CPAS), which formally limits the power of street-level bureaucrats.


This paper will investigate the actual autonomy of those social workers in charge of helping recipients to find a job (“integration agents”), through the analysis of the organizational dynamics which constrain or allow for their autonomy on the one hand, and the uses of their autonomy on the other hand. More specifically, it will focus on creaming practices, in an attempt to assess the power of integration agents in granting access to their service and its different programs. In other words, do integration agents have the power to “cream” part of the public? If so, how do they use it, and on the basis of which selection criteria?


The results draw upon a four-month ethnographical study in the “socio-professional integration service” of a CPAS in Wallonia, the southern Region of Belgium, encompassing  observation of the everyday-life of the service, observation of interactions between workers and recipients, interviews with workers and their hierarchy, as well as the analysis of internal documents of the organization and individual files of recipients. The diversity of sources allows for an analysis of decisions taken both in the synchronicity of face-to-face interactions between workers and recipients and in the long-term temporality of individual cases, with the aim to assess the concrete consequences of integration agents’ autonomy on recipients’ access to socio-professional integration services.

How Street-Level Bureaucrats Become Policy Entrepreneurs: The Case of Urban Renewal in Israel

Nissim Cohen - NissimCohen@poli.haifa.ac.il - University of Haifa - Israel

Under what conditions will implementing bureaucrats act as policy entrepreneurs seeking to change policy? What strategies do these entrepreneurs adopt to promote their influence on policy design?

In recent decades the environment of street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) has undergone far-reaching changes (Brodkin, 2011; Lipski, 2010; Cohen et al 2016a). Under the structural conditions of neoliberal policies, SLBs are working in an environment characterized by increasing privatization and the withdrawal of the welfare state. As part of these changes, public social service organizations are operating under the influence of New Public Management (NPM) wave of reforms. The main goals of most of these reforms is improving efficiency, contracting out, privatizing the delivery of services, and adopting private-sector management methods including an outcome-based orientation.

Social workers are SLBs whose professional routine has been strongly influenced by this neoliberal ideology (Cohen et al., 2016b). The withdrawal of the welfare state has also led to increased hardship among disadvantaged populations that has translated into direct pressure on public social service providers. In many countries that were influenced by the neoliberal ideology, poverty and increased inequality have become a common phenomenon (Pierson, 2001). Social workers are often the front-line workers who must deal with these issues. Among other changes, the organizational demand to adopt more innovative activities and change traditional modes of practice has becoming increasingly loud, emphasizing the important role of social workers as policy actors who facilitate and enrich the formulation of social policy (Weiss-Gal and Gal, 2014). In this changing environment, social workers are often confronted with situations in which they lack the knowledge needed to respond to the pressures arising from their clients’ hardships, particularly when they must deal with new areas outside their traditional routines and beyond their professional expertise.

While previous studies argue that street-level bureaucrats can become policy entrepreneurs, the basic assumption is that they will do so through the implementation of policy. We argue that the combination of three elements leads social workers to adopt innovative strategies aimed at influencing policy design on the individual level through a process we call street-level bureaucrats’ policy entrepreneurship. These three elements are acute crises, lack of effective knowledge in the area, and the demand that they implement policies in the context of NPM. In acute crises, social workers believe that their clients face severe threats that require an immediate response. However, they often do not possess the required professional, organizational, and political knowledge to address these needs. These circumstances, combined with the requirements of NPM, often push them to become part of the political game and influence public policy. Nevertheless, as we will explain, street-level bureaucrat policy entrepreneurs have several characteristics that they can leverage, leading them to engage in unique entrepreneurship strategies.

Based on in-depth interviews, focus groups and textual source analysis, we demonstrate our theoretical insights using the case of social workers working with disadvantaged populations in the context of urban renewal in Israel.



Breynner Oliveira - breynner.oliveira@gmail.com - Fundação Educativa de Radio e TV de Ouro Preto CNPJ:00.306.770/0001-67 - Brazil

This paper analyzes the implementation process of two national conditional cash tranfers programs (Bolsa Família/Brazil) and Oportunidades/Mexico) from the perspective of public-level bureaucrats, based on educational conditionality. Both are programs that provide a monetary benefit to families living in poverty, linking the provision of this benefit to the condition that families comply with co-responsibilities in the areas of education and health. The work of Lipsky (1980) is considered an important reference for the implementation literature because, when analyzing this process from the perspective of the actors who are closest to the citizens, it assumes that these agents exert influence on these policies, altering their course of action. action. When analyzing these programs in Belo Horizonte (Brazil) and in San Luís Potosí (Mexico), the professionals of education, social assistance, the Responsibles de Atención (RAs) and Vocals are the agents at the local level that correspond to the characterization of Lipsky (1980). In Brazil, two public schools located in a region of extreme poverty were the gateway to the field analysis. It was identified that the Centers of Reference in Social Assistance emerge as one of the spaces of articulation so that the educational conditionality is fulfilled by the families. In Mexico, the Regional Attention Units are responsible for the mobilization of the holders. In order to analyze how educational conditionality is perceived by these agents, teachers and principals of two public schools were interviewed. By the analysis of the data obtained, we conclude that there are different types of interaction and mediation, explained by the different perceptions, values ​​and interpretations that these actors construct as they perform their functions. In Belo Horizonte, the implementation of the policy stimulates the creation and strengthening of cooperation networks. In San Luis Potosí, the program, because it is more regulated, makes it difficult to create intersectoral links. Despite the nature of the program in this country, the role of RAs and vowels indicates that they are important references because they have created bridges between citizens and the state, as well as strengthening the bonds between the beneficiaries. The same is identified in Brazil when the behavior of social care professionals, school principals and pedagogical coordinators is analyzed. In both countries, the role of teachers is not decisive, probably because of their perception of educational conditionality and of existing monitoring processes. The research reveals that, in different ways, this conditionality mobilizes and approximates agents at the local level, even when intersectorality is still an institutional problem. It is concluded that the evidence on the action of streel-level agents reinforces Lipsky's (1980) thesis, serving as a contribution to both formulators and public policy implementers. It should be noted that the perceived discretion in their daily work, combined with interaction styles, availability of services and their attitudes towards programs effectively produces changes in the design of the programs investigated.


Key words: Policy Implementation, Street-level Bureaucracy, Conditional Cash Transfer Programs, Education

Session 2


Tobias Eule - tobias.eule@oefre.unibe.ch - University of Bern - Switzerland

Working the middle: mid-level bureaucrats' autonomy and influence in policy implementation

Roberto Pires - roberto.pires@ipea.gov.br - IPEA - Institute for Applied Economic Research - Brazil

While the study of state agents who operate both at the frontlines of public service and at the top of hierarchical chains has received considerable scholarly attention, the analysis of the roles performed by mid-level bureaucrats remains a “missing variable” in policy studies. This paper aims at exploring the work (routine activities, tasks, and interactions) performed by these agents who operate in the intermediate echelons of government. It seeks to understand how mid-level bureaucrats perceive and construct their roles, the particular forms of autonomy they enjoy, and the consequences of their exercise in terms of power and influence in policy implementation. The paper is based on an investigation of the mid-level bureaucracy in the Brazilian federal government. The analysis is based on both quantitative and qualitative original empirical data. While data from administrative records and a unique survey (approximately 8,000 respondents) provided an extensive characterization of the agents and the work performed at the mid-level (as compared to the top and bottom levels), the qualitative case studies of five federal programs (elaborated on the basis of interviews, observation, and document analysis) allowed for an in-depth investigation of the day-to-day activities of mid-level bureaucrats in different policy domains. The findings indicate that the mid-level can be understood not only as a differentiated social and working space, but also as a segment of the bureaucracy whose sources of autonomy and influence are distinct from the upper and lower levels. By routinely working between multiple others, mid-level bureaucrats make the middle, by performing a work of unification, as they decide which connections (or disconnections) to establish with other state agents surrounding them (superiors, peers, subordinates, politicians, etc.), as well as with civil society and private actors. The inclusions and exclusions operated through these quotidian connections vary according to the mid-level bureaucrats’ interpretations of the policy challenges they face and of the policy environment under which they operate (e.g. excessive fragamention, political interferences, unbalanced goals, etc.). Thus, on a day-to-day basis, mid-level bureaucrats assemble and maintain implementation collectives (i.e. heterogeneous groups of state and non-state agents involved in policy execution) and, by doing so, they end up defining who the legitimate policy implementation partners are in each case. At last, this paper aims at contributing to larger theoretical debates about agency within state institutions and to reflections about the types of power and politics exercised by different state agents.

Policy Friction: An Explanation of Policy Implementation Deviation in China

LEI QIAN - ql_sysu@126.com - China

Implementation deviation is common and interesting in the process of policy implementation in China, and many policies are even deviated from the original intention of the policy because of implementation deviation. Implementation deviation mechanism is necessary to solve the challenges of policy implementation. The existing research mainly focuses on the perspective of different levels of government in china, and believes that the local decentralization system of authoritarian regime is the main reason for policy implementation deviation in China. The research is based on the perspective of government and enterprise, taking the risk compensation policy series of innovation as an example for case analysis. Combining the performance and mechanism of policy deviation in China, the research puts forward the conception of "policy friction" as a new interpretation for policy implementation deviation in China. The research shows that the policy implementation deviation has three characteristics: more dissatisfaction but less conflicts in policy, action changed but the policy text unchanged, implementation deviation but policy implementation can be sustained. The research argues that the deviation of policy implementation is "policy friction", which is the result of the interaction between the enterprises and government, since public policy is not only a tool of public affairs management but also a tool of government blame-avoiding. The attribute of government blame-avoiding leads to strong government in the process of policy formulation and implementation. Therefore, the opinions of enterprises can only be expressed in the way of non-implementation or modification. But as a public affairs management tool, the policy would rely on the participation of enterprises. "Policy Friction" is formed. The research tries to break through the limitations of policy implementation process, taking policy attribute as consideration, further explained the interaction mechanism between government and enterprise.

Exploring the Role of Ideas in Street-Level Bureaucracies: The Case of Canada’s Compassionate Care Benefits Program.

Francesca Scala - francesca.scala@concordia.ca - Concordia University - Canada

   Street level bureaucrats play a critical role in the policy process. Through their discretionary actions, public servants influence how policy is interpreted and experienced by citizens ‘on the ground’. While the influence street level bureaucrats wield in the policy process is now widely recognized, little is known about how normative ideas shape their implementation strategies and affect policy outcomes. Using the case of Canada’s Compassionate Care Benefits program, this paper aims to remedy this gap by exploring if and how ideas matter in policy implementation.  Drawing from policy implementation research and feminist social policy, the paper addresses three inter-related questions. First, how do the ideas that street level bureaucrats have about a policy issue or program shape their ‘implementation work’ and their interactions with clients? Second, how do normative ideas about gender, work and care influence whether street-level bureaucrats apply, adapt, or defy formal policy objectives? Third, how do normative ideas interact with local organizational imperatives to shape the implementation strategies of street level bureaucrats?

    These questions are explored through a case study of Canada’s Compassionate Care Benefits (CCB) program.  As a case study, the CCB program is an ideal theoretical and empirical site for investigating the effects of normative ideas on street level behavior and policy outcomes for a number of reasons. First, from an implementation standpoint, the CCB program is largely viewed as a failure.  While designed to provide income assistance to individuals who have to temporarily leave work to provide care for an ill family member, program uptake among eligible clients – mostly women - continues to be abysmally low. This suggests a gap between the program’s formal intentions and the manner in which the program is understood and implemented in street-level bureaucracies. Second, street-level bureaucrats working in this area, i.e. social workers, have substantial discretion in how and when they refer citizens to the CCB program. Hence, we can examine what lies behind the use of discretion in frontline practice. Third, the CCB program is located in a policy domain – work-family reconciliation – that is highly gendered, both in terms of its underlying assumptions and its outcomes. This enables us to explore how normative ideas about gender, especially as they relate to work and care, shape the discretionary acts of street -level bureaucrats. Finally, by examining the implementation of the CCB program in the local setting of a government agency, we can bring to the fore the organizational and contextual factors that interact with normative ideas to shape implementation work on the frontlines.

            Drawing on documentary analysis and in-depth qualitative interviews with frontline workers in social services agencies, this paper explores the micro-level dynamics of policy implementation and the role normative ideas play in how street-level workers behave, make choices and interact with citizens in local settings. In doing so, it offers new insights into the role of ideas in discretionary decision-making in street level bureaucracies.

Implications of the police bureaucracy for the control of corruption in drug interdiction in the VRAEM- Peru

María Fátima A. Rojas Boucher - fatima.rojasb@pucp.edu.pe - Laboratorio de Criminología y Estudios sobre la Violencia - Peru

In establishing drug interdiction measures, the State deploys human and logistical resources which is expected to fulfill in favor of the objectives outlined. However, in the process of the implementation of the measures, police officers, who are the principal agents involved in drug interdiction, have limitations in order to fight against illicit drug trafficking and to combat corrupt practices which search to evade drug control system. In that sense, it is questioned: which elements of the police bureaucracy have an impact on the implementation of anti-corruption measures during the police operations of drug interdiction in the Valley of the rivers Apurímac and Ene - Peru? One explanation is that the policies who work in this type of operations obey the logic of the “Street-level bureaucrat”, they perform their work in a scenario with high discretion and relative autonomy in relation with their authorities (Lipsky M., 2010). For this reason, it is necessary to consider what happens at the local level to know police behavior in anti-drug policies for real. In addition, despite we are studying a police institution, which is hierarchically regulated, it is necessary to attend to the particularities of the local police (conceiving a "bottom-up" policy).


For this work, we use a qualitative methodology, which is basically based on two tools. One tool is the interview with people involved: police and specialists, and the other tool is the review of normative and police files where acts of corruption is highlighted. Naturally, we have applied an informed consent protocol, and we have taken into account, ethical considerations to keep the sensitivity of the information. Finally, the relationship with the panel discussion is that the degree of autonomy of a Street-level bureaucrat as the police is a fact, but in a scenario of drug interdiction, to know how the police autonomy behaves can be useful for effective control of deviant practices such as corruption.

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