Street-Level Bureaucrats Discretion and Compliance in Policy Implementation

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In 1980 Michael Lipsky published 'Street-level Bureaucracy', arguing that public policy is often vague and imprecise, and relies on front-line workers to make sense of it on the ground in delivering public services. At the same time, the book is critical of front-line workers for not complying with policy in their use of discretion. Lipsky's approach has influenced a great deal of subsequent analysis of public service provision, but continues to contain an unresolved tension at its core. If policy is vague, how can discretion be judged non-compliant against it? The street-level bureaucracy approach has tended to seek to resolve this tension by assuming that all public services are fundamentally the same and that all public service workers should use discretion in a particular way.

While street-level bureaucracies — front line public services — are similar in that they are subject to policies, operate under conditions of inadequate resources, and afford frontline workers discretion in their work, there are also significant differences between types of public services in the ways they work with policy and the nature and extent of discretion of staff delivering the service. Different services do different things; the nature of the policy they work with varies, and the logic of provision and priorities vary between services. Policy, for instance, may refer to a precise set of instructions, or to setting out particular concerns or broad-brush commitments. Some services, such as benefits provision, are specified in detailed policy which not only sets out what they can do but also how decisions should be made. Others services, such as policing, are subject to a range of policies and concerns often expressed as conflicting demands that have to be balanced and managed in the particular circumstances of their application. And others, mainly human services, are primarily thought of in terms what the professionals within provide, and assumes a logic of service provision to be located in those providing the service. Policy is sometimes more explicit and discretion narrower; it is sometimes looser and relies more on discretion. It may, in some circumstances, be sufficient to refer to policy to understand what services are supposed to do; in other circumstance, policy alone provides a poor picture of what’s expected.

Street-level bureaucracy analysis is too broad-brush and cannot capture the range of ideas of compliance in public services. It tends to equate policy with instruction and judgement with organisational thinking, and to see non-compliance as endemic in the use of discretion. In doing this, it fails to appreciate the variety of relationships between policy and public services; the varied extent of discretion in different settings, and the range of concerns and ethical commitments in different public services. Compliance in policy implementation needs to be sensitive to different types of public services and the subsequent variety of commitments and concerns of street-level bureaucrats in those public services.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusPublished - 27 Oct 2020

Publication series

NameOxford Research Encyclopaedia of Politics
PublisherOxford University Press


  • Street-level Bureaucracy
  • Policy
  • Discretion
  • Administration
  • Human Services
  • Regulation
  • Compliance
  • Justice
  • Professionals

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