[This is the first of a series of posts related to my forthcoming ‘Theory and Methods’ seminar The politics of regulation: Exploring bureaucracy and its consequences for public sector professions, to be delivered on the 13th February at the University of Glasgow [1:30-4pm, Rm 433, St. Andrew’s Building]. The idea of these posts is to hone in on the key issues to be raised in the seminar while also providing some of the background context to the research – as I said, feel free to comment, especially if you have an interest in this field of public administration – the governance and management of public services].

The unwelcome consequences of the new bureaucracy mentioned in the abstract for the seminar should be a major concern to policy makers and those interested in the effective functioning of democratic institutions; As Michael Lipsky put it in Street-level bureaucracy (1980), accountability is ‘the link between bureaucracy and democracy’. At the same time, these consequences illustrate how the achievement of accountability (through whatever means) is fraught with difficulty. These consequences do not occur in a vacuum. Reform or administrative measures and initiatives in order to have effect must negotiate already existing structures, cultures and practices, the reason why many unintended consequences occur in the first place. This is especially the case because accountability must, in the messy world of work and public life, encounter other forms of regulatory mechanism. These other forms of regulation, such as law, time and social norms, have their own internal logic, and cannot be made to bow to the demands of the new bureaucracy without consequences.

It should be pointed out that concerns over the unintended consequences of accountability regimes have been expressed long before the advent of the new bureaucracy of quality assurance, with Peter Blau warning of such consequences in Bureaucracy in modern society (Blau, 1956). The difficulties attached to quality assurance mechanisms and their use to regulate and control professional behaviour, attitudes and outcomes are one of the reasons why accountability is such a ‘tricky subject’. The case of public sector professionals is particularly problematic when it comes to accountability, because of the specific and specialist nature of their work. Working directly with the public leaves their actions open to misinterpretation, subsequently making them vulnerable to accusations and complaints. The intersubjective nature of their core activity is a testing ground for regulation. 

It is precisely this aspect, the intersubjective dimension, however, that Lipsky saw as core to the work of street-level bureaucrats – a group including teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, police and numerous other public sector professions. According to him, the “essence of street level bureaucracy is that they require people to make decisions about other people” (Lipsky, 1980: 161). Working at the level of the street, the argument goes, allows professionals to ‘make policy’ through their capacity to exercise judgement and use discretion when dealing with members of the public. No bureaucratic regime can be that all encompassing where the activities of professionals can be so regulated that their role as policy filters can be overridden.

Indeed, Lipsky’s original notion was designed to acknowledge and identify such a function for professionals, as a way of understanding how they are active players themselves in the process of forming policy. Understanding bureaucracy at the level of the ‘street’ offered a powerful antidote to less nuanced top-down approaches to understanding forms of government regulation and control. It also offers an intellectual space from which to explore how workers manipulate official policy in the context of their relationships with the public.

This capacity for judgement and discretion, however, must be viewed through the prism of new bureaucratic methods of governance, which ultimately sheds a different light on street-level bureaucracy 30 years on. How has this capacity survived what many consider a more pronounced presence of accountability mechanisms and quality assurance in professional life? Specifically, is there still sufficient space for teachers et al to make professional judgements at the street level?  

This issue strikes at the heart of the research under consideration, and the next several posts will identify core areas of discussion in relation to the regulation of public sector professions – the next post will focus in on ‘the politics of time on the front line’, exploring how temporal regulation impacts on accountability and public sector work practices.