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Street-level bureaucrats and policy entrepreneurship: When implementers challenge policy design

27 July 2021



Image of people are walking on a pedestrian crossing

In the musical West Side Story, it was all about the tensions between rival street gangs the Sharks and the Jets. In the word of public policy, it is about the tensions between policy designers and those on the frontline. An article in Public Administration examines how street-level bureaucrats who not only implement policy but can also influence how it is designed.

Who are street-level bureaucrats?

Street-level bureaucrats interact with the public every day. They include nurses, teachers and social workers. Street-level bureaucrats are responsible for translating policy into the delivery of programs and services. Their determinations affect many people’s lives. They can decide in which clients to invest more formal and informal resources. They can even bend or break the rules for clients they want to help.

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Street-level bureaucrats have a limited number of resources and manage demands from all sides. At times, there can be lack of clarity about the policies they are supposed to implement. To deal with this complicated situation, they often use their discretion when dealing with clients.

It is their interpretation of policy that determines how policy works on the ground. As a result, there can be a gap between “policy as written” and the “policy as performed”. There are three factors that influence street-level bureaucrats’ decision-making:

  • personal characteristics such as their values, beliefs, standards and how they respond to incentives
  • organisational conditions including resources, networks and interaction with peers
  • the political environment in which they operate.

Who are policy entrepreneurs?

Policy entrepreneurs seek to exploit opportunities to influence policy outcomes without having the resources necessary to achieve these outcomes alone. Whether from the private, public or community sector, one of their defining characteristics is a willingness to invest their own resources such as time, energy and reputation. They employ innovative ideas and non-traditional strategies to secure policy outcomes. Entrepreneurial activities usually seek to change the status quo rather than preserve it.

In influencing policy, entrepreneurs combine problems, policies, and politics and look for a window of opportunity. They recognise there is a problem in need of a solution and are cognisant of the political environment. They are also across solutions that are circulating, often in search of a problem. Skilful policy entrepreneurs can combine these three elements when a window of opportunity opens up, leading to a change in policy.

From policy implementation to policy design

To date, most studies examining the influence of bureaucracy on policy design have focused on high-level bureaucrats. This assumes high-level bureaucrats know more about policy problems than other players due to their professional knowledge and expertise.

However, street-level bureaucrats’ policy entrepreneurship is not a new practice. It goes as far back as Florence Nightingale: a British social reformer, statistician and the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale’s popular image as a romantic heroine ignores her achievements as a street-level bureaucrat policy entrepreneur.

As chief nurse during the Crimean War, Nightingale tried to change the existing policy by taking advantage of a window of opportunity to introduce innovative ideas and new approaches. She also established coalitions with powerful allies, led by example and used data and professional knowledge to advance her goals.

Street-level bureaucrats have unique characteristics that help and hinder them in using entrepreneurial strategies. The limitations include:

  • being relatively low in the organisation’s hierarchy
  • juggling competing and sometimes contradictory demands
  • not having the formal authority or justification to engage in policy design.

At the same time, they have several advantages:

  • they are familiar with the field and their clients’ environment
  • they know what these clients need
  • they are considered unbiased professionals.

What this means

Research studies have shown street-level policy entrepreneurship is an important part of policy-making. If so, public organisations should invest in training in this area.

Street level bureaucrats are policy makers when they interact with clients in providing services and enforcing regulations. Their discretionary power can challenge a state’s normative and moral ideas, as framed in the state’s policies. Bottom-up policy making-can flip the well-known notion of the policy cycle. This new perspective may offer insights into why some policies are not implemented as originally designed. Drawing on a bottom-up approach can also minimise the gap between policy-making and actual policy implementation.

Want to read more?

Street-level bureaucrats and policy entrepreneurship: When implementers challenge policy design – Nissim Cohen & Neomi F. Aviram, Public Administration, May 2021

The original article is available via individual subscription to the journal or institutional access through a library service such as a university library, state library or government library.

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Published Date: 27 July 2021