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Street-level bureaucracy

Street-level bureaucracy

Published on: October 2015​
Genre: Public Services​ Category: Public Leadership​
In 1980, Lipsky’s Street-Level Bureaucracy challenged us to turn our thinking about public policy on its head. That challenge is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago.

Who are street-level bureaucrats?

Lipsky defines street-level bureaucrats as the people who meet citizens at the interface between the citizens and government: teachers, police officers, health workers, court officials, immigration staff to name just a few. What these public service workers do, every day, directly impacts people’s lives. They deploy discretion in their decision-making, making choices constantly about who receives beneficial services, and who to sanction.
Lipsky argues that in practice, street-level bureaucrats create the public policy that their clients experience: “the decisions of street-level bureaucrats, the routines they establish, and the devices they invent to cope with uncertainties and work pressures, effectively become the public policies they carry out” (p.xii).
When first published, Lipsky’s insight that the citizen’s lived experience of public policy is mediated by front line workers was revolutionary. ‘Top down’, ‘strategic’ policy making was no longer enough. Now, attention had to be given to the practices of public service and to the practitioners themselves.

The conditions of street level work and patterns of coping behaviour

Lipsky defines street level work as ordinarily facing five conditions (but not always, and not always all): (i) inadequate resources for the task they are being asked to perform; (ii) demand for services tends to increase to meet supply; (iii) the agency’s goals are often vague; (iv) measuring performance tends to be difficult; and (v) clients are typically non-voluntary. He identifies that these conditions drive some consistent patterns of coping behaviour.
Lipsky’s view is that street level bureaucrats try to do a good job, but their practices are shaped by the conditions of street level work. In the face of complexity, they develop routines – standardized processes and mental simplifications – to help get through the work:
-          Rationing services to regularize their own workflows. This may include rationing of time, monetary resources, information, and psychological rationing (e.g., making people wait or queue)
-          Controlling clients and the work situation – including conducting business in official settings that reinforce the power imbalance between worker and service recipient; husbanding resources; making referrals, and hand-offs.
While there may be rational reasons for each of these strategies, Lipsky argues that there are also psychological benefits to the street-level bureaucrat, reinforcing such practices even when they are not productive. Further, street level-bureaucrats develop conceptions of their jobs and clients which also help them to cope. They may be cynical; they may develop prejudices; they may pick favourites. However understandable, these biases are unsanctioned. They shape the experience of policy without that being any part of policy-makers’ original intentions.
Implications for today’s public managers

Lipsky was not conducting an offensive against an assumed-to-be-unproductive public sector. Instead, he was offering a sociological diagnosis of what actually happens at the front line of public services. That diagnosis is at times pretty gloomy. As Lipsky himself admits in the 2010 update, many if not most teachers, police officers, and social workers like what they do and do it relatively well.
Street-level bureaucracy: dilemmas of the individual in public services however remains a powerful reminder that to understand the reality of public policy, we need to understand how it is delivered in practice, at the front-line. That means understanding the social and psychological interplay between working conditions, workers, and service users.
Finally, as Kosar (2011) optimistically notes, street-level bureaucracies can be bettered by good managers—managers who understand the dilemmas of public servants, who can coach them, and inspire them to develop positive responses.


Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York, Russel Sage Foundation.
Lipsky, M. (2010). Street-Level Bureaucracy, 30th Ann. Ed.: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service. Russell Sage Foundation.
Kosar, K. R. (2011). Street Level‐Bureaucracy: The Dilemmas Endure. Public Administration Review, 71(2), 299-302.

For a 4 minute primer, we recommend: Street Level Bureaucrats with Michael Lipsky, [YouTube video] United States Study Centre, Sydney Australia.

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