Street-level bureaucracy

Police officers stop a motorist and check the motorist's documents at a random checkpoint.
An elementary school teacher instructing her students.
A social worker in India teaches her clients how to use a laptop. As an exercise, she is showing them how to edit the Wikipedia online encyclopedia.

Street-level bureaucracy is the subset of a public agency or government institution where the civil servants work who have direct contact with members of the general public. Street-level civil servants carry out and/or enforce the actions required by a government's laws and public policies, in areas ranging from safety and security to education and social services. A few examples include police officers, border guards, social workers and public school teachers. These civil servants have direct contact with members of the general public, in contrast with civil servants who do policy analysis or economic analysis, who do not meet the public. Street-level bureaucrats act as liaisons between government policy-makers and citizens and these civil servants implement policy decisions made by senior officials in the public service and/or by elected officials.

Street-level bureaucrats interact and communicate with the general public, either in person (as with a police officer doing a random checkpoint to check for drunk driving or a civil servant in a department of transportation who helps people to register a newly purchased car and provide them with licence plates); over the phone (as with a government call center, where civil servants answer phone calls from people who are applying for or receiving unemployment insurance); or, in jurisdictions which have implemented electronic government technologies, via the Internet (e.g., a person finding out about the government's taxation laws by going onto the taxation department's official website and asking questions to a civil servant via email).

Street-level bureaucrats often have some degree of discretion on how they enforce the rules, laws and policies which they are assigned to uphold. For example, a police officer who catches a speeding motorist typically can decide whether to give the driver a warning or apply a penalty such as a fine or criminal charge; a border guard who finds undeclared rum in a border-crossing motorist's car trunk can either give the person a warning, confiscate and destroy the contraband item, or levy a fine or other penalty; a government social worker who meets with an unemployed person can decide whether or not to provide social assistance or unemployment insurance benefits; and a high school principal who finds that a student is skipping school can decide whether or not to suspend the person, taking into account the student's unique circumstances and situation. Even though front-line bureaucrats have this degree of discretion, they typically must operate within the rule of law, the system of government regulations, laws and administrative procedural rules. These regulations, laws and rules help to ensure that the street-level bureaucracy operates fairly and ethically, and that each citizen is treated fairly.


The concept of street-level bureaucracy was first coined by Michael Lipsky in 1969([1]), who argued that "policy implementation in the end comes down to the people [(the street-level bureaucrats)] who actually implement it". However, the process of street-level bureaucracy has been around for a much longer period. A "government will be better accepted if its administrators [e.g., bureaucrats] reflect the origins [and needs] of its people", [2] an ideal which embodies the goals of an effective street-level bureaucracy in America. Some of the first street-level bureaucrats in the US were post office officials and administrators. The presidency of Woodrow Wilson helped to spur a large growth in public administration and government policy-making, which in turn led to larger-sized and better-funded street-level bureaucracies. However it was not until the 1950s with the baby boom that street level bureaucracy became as strong as a presence in society as it is in the 2000s.

Lipsky describes street level bureaucrats as the "human face" of policy, since these individuals interact directly with citizens.[3] The history of street-level bureaucracy follows the history of policy development and the scope of government in America, with areas with larger populations and more government policies employing more public servants (e.g., Chicago which employs 26,680 teachers).([3]) Due to street-level bureaucrats' close interactions with citizens, day-to-day application of discretion in their assessment of people's cases and issues, and their role as policy interpreters, Lipsky claims that "in a sense the street-level bureaucrats implicitly mediate aspects of the constitutional relationship of citizens to the state. In short, they hold the keys to a dimension of citizenship."([4]) The interpretation of the duties, scope, and responsibilities of street-level bureaucrats are still debated in the 2000s, with ongoing discussion on the roles of discretion, accountability, lack of resources, and technology and concerns raised about the risks of corruption.

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中文: 基层官僚