Street Level Bureaucrats in South Africa

With an inordinate amount of study spent on analyzing governmental organizations, Michael Lipsky has devoted substantial study to those street level bureaucrats that effectively create public policy through their individual responses and routines to their jobs. Street level bureaucrats include teachers, police officers, social workers, but generally those that are involved in administering the state’s resources to the citizens of the state. Instead of relating citizen’s reactions to national reforms or policy implementations, Lipsky focus primarily on street level bureaucrats and explains there behavior in examining a state’s interactions with its citizens.

Lipsky argues that the decisions of Street Level Bureaucrats are the key to understanding public policy and its implementation rather than looking at top-level bureaucrats in national administration offices. He feels it necessary to stress that conflict in policy implementation not only originates from competing interest groups but also between individuals and Street Level Bureaucrats in the struggle to receive state resources through state agencies. This can be attempting to receive proper health care, good education, or justice in the face of the law. While most of the administrators on a street level enter their profession with a desire to work for the public good, the stresses placed on these public officials cause them to compromise their “ideal conception of their job” (Lipsky 390).

In the process of inventing different techniques and modes to deal with the mass processing that is required of any state agency favoritism, stereotyping, and rountinizing can emerge. This is in great contrast the to fair, equal, and relatively swift way of dealing with clients that is supposedly part of the core values of the agency. In order to not burn out due to the immense stress that is part of a Street Level Bureaucrats job, lowering their expectations and modifying their work habits around these adjusted expectations occur. Under this new mindset, coping is often the prevalent in the agencies structure, meaning that they try to cope with the strain upon the structure with the limited resources at their disposal. This coping mindset often leads to an expansion of mediocrity in the field of Street Level Bureaucrats. However, Lipsky makes a point in saying that the expanding mediocrity is not a truism of public servants, but more a product of the systems that they work for.

On the clientele side, an acceptance of mediocrity grows as the individual interacts more with the state agencies. This acceptance stems from a dilemma that faces those citizens wishing to receive state resources. Do they stand in line knowing their query will likely not receive the attention it deserves or do they speak out for their rights forcefully? The latter means that their needs go unanswered because of submissiveness, the former means that they will antagonize the very people they wish to receive assistance from. Additionally, citizens are often trapped in their environment, meaning that they must accept their local state agency, whether it is the schools, housing, or courts. Especially those citizens that are poor feel especially trapped because they have fewer paths for recourse than those that are wealthier.

Finally, Lipsky questions the alternatives that face national level administrators. Should the government further systemize and autonomize the interaction between state agency and citizens or to continue to attempt to cut costs that in turn reduces services? Lipsky seems to be in favor or neither of these solutions and instead suggests that restoring the importance in human interaction in those processes that require discretionary action on a part of a Street Level Bureaucrats (Lipsky 392).

Bob Hudson examines Lipsky’s street level bureaucrats and concludes that in the way of policy, Street Level Bureaucrats end up making policy because of the strategies that are forced upon them based on the circumstances of their working environment. He stresses Lipsky’s title in saying that it is not just the power that Street Level Bureaucrats hold but also the dilemma that they face in their jobs. The power says Hudson, is in the form of discretion that Street Level Bureaucrats hold in making decisions about other people. This is an intrinsic fact of agencies that deal out state resources (394).

Hudson gives examples of the discretions of Street Level Bureaucrats. These include the Policemen deciding who to arrest and whose behavior to overlook; Teachers making subtle decisions on who is teachable; Social workers on who is socially salvageable; Health care workers on who has a life worth preserving; House letting officers on who gets accommodation; Social security officers on who gets a community care grant (Hudson 394). Additionally this discretion is seen in the Department of Home Affairs where Immigration officers decide who receive visas and residency permits. While there are regulations on immigration that are supposed to be enforced in a objective manner, the decision on applications still comes down to an individual. This individual could be influenced by the numerous stereotypes that are associated with immigrants; immigrants taking jobs away from South Africans, immigrants bringing in disease, and the increase of crime due to immigrants. Due to the general feeling that immigrants pose a threat to the society and the economic interests of South Africa, the immigration policy of South Africa has been extremely restrictive as South Africa has reconnected with the world economy. This is in the face of evidence that immigrants all around the world actually help a nation’s economy. While the effects in the short term may be negative, the general theme of immigration is that the benefits in the long term will be undeniably positive and have an impact on the nation as a whole. However, because the power of discretion lies in the hands of Street Level Bureaucrats, and thus in fallible people, stereotypes will undoubtedly play a part in the informal immigration policy of any country (Mattes).

Both Hudson and Lipsky come to the dire conclusion that the accountability of Street Level Bureaucrats remains low, and will continue to remain low because in Lipsky’s view the necessity of discretion in Street Level Bureaucrats work is inescapable (Hudson 394). The fact that Hudson says that the link between bureaucracy and democracy is through accountability, we must question whether they believe that any of our systems are actually democratic as they claim.


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