Cops, Teachers, Counselors: Stories from the Front Lines of Public Service by Steven Maynard-Moody, Michael Musheno
|Reviewed By:||Norma M. Riccucci|
|Reviewed in:||Public Administration Review|
|Date accepted online:||24/03/2005|
|Published in print:||Volume 65, Issue 2, Pages 243-245|
In Their Own Words: The Voices and Experiences of Street-Level Bureaucrats
As students of public administration have long recognized, street-level bureaucrats play an essential and some-what paradoxical role in the public policy implementation process. In fact, given their discretionary powers and autonomy from organizational control, street-level workers actually make policy choices rather than simply implement the decisions and choices of elected political officials. It is at the street level where policy delivery may be most critical, because the actions of front-line workers have substantial and sometimes unexpected consequences for the actual direction and outcome of public policies.
In their powerful book,
Maynard-Moody and Musheno organize their book into three sections. The first, entitled "Two Narratives of Street-Level Work," sets up the framework for studying how street-level workers "make sense of their world and account for what they do" (9). The authors point out that instead of the conventional focus on "state-agent" narratives, which examine how workers apply laws, rules, and regulations, they rely on the "citizen-agent" narrative. Here the focus is on how workers balance the application of rules with their perceptions of citizens or clients to ultimately make decisions about their work behaviors. More specifically, Maynard-Moody and Musheno purport that the behaviors of street-level bureaucrats can be ascribed to the interaction of official agency rules and workers' moral judgments of the citizens or clients with whom they encounter. They make the important point that workers' beliefs about the people they interact with "continually rub against policies and rules" (4).
In the second section, "Enacting Identities in the Workplace and on the Streets," the authors turn their attention to the identities of the workers. Through an analysis of about a dozen stories, Maynard-Moody and Musheno illustrate workers' tendency to define themselves based on their identification with specific occupational groups as well as racial, class, and gender groups. These identities, in turn, influence the workers' behavior. For example, the authors "find evidence of bonding among street-level workers" whereby the workers "unite against management to push grievances and close ranks to protect the reputation of workers even when there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing" (52).
The authors also find that "the growing diversification of the workforce is generating identity enclaves for workers and redefining these agencies' internal politics" (52). Although these conclusions are drawn from an extremely small subset of narratives (three), Maynard-Moody and Musheno find that in their daily routines and encounters with the public or clients, street-level workers "draw significantly on their generational, religious, class, physical, ethnic, racial, sexual and gender identities to form bonds" (52).
In the third and final section, an important empirical picture emerges: the behaviors of street-level bureaucrats are influenced not by bureaucratic rules and regulations, but rather by their own moral judgments, which are based on their personal knowledge of and constant interactions with clients. Maynard-Moody and Musheno find that "moral judgments about citizen-clients infuse all aspects of street-level decision making. To street-level workers, fairness has little to do with the bureaucratic norm of treating everyone the same or even fairly implementing laws and regulations. To our storytellers, fairness and justice mean responding to citizen-clients based on their perceived worth" (93-94). This is a critical finding, and runs counter to much of the Weberian school of thought which so permeates public administration. Street-level workers, according to Maynard-Moody and Musheno's research, do not tend to treat citizen-clients as faceless, dehumanized cases. They are not "abstractions-'the disabled,' 'the poor,' 'the criminal'-but ... individuals with flaws and strengths who rarely fall within the one-size-fitsall approach of policies and laws" (94).
Maynard-Moody and Musheno find that street-level workers judge the worthiness of citizen-clients based on such factors as the genuine need for services, civility, deference, good character, and motivation to respond to treatment. As the authors point out, "Workers expect civility in conversation and deference to their advice. When incivility and failure to defer are evident in the stories of sustained interaction, citizens tend to be fixed with a stigmatized identity and experience negative sanctions to teach lessons in civility and morality" (54). Unworthy citizen-clients, Maynard-Moody and Musheno note, are the "bad guys," where bureaucratic "rules are used to protect the workers and to withhold or minimize services or at times to punish" (156).
The overall strength of this book rests in the authors' reliance on stories or narratives to describe the behaviors and actions of street-level workers. In this sense, the book offers the unique contribution of bringing to life the actual voices of these street-level workers. The stories provide concrete examples of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of street-level bureaucratic behavior. Moreover, storytelling uncovers the judgments of street-level workers as the workers themselves see them. Maynard-Moody and Musheno explain that the stories "are pragmatic expressions about acts and identities and assertions of dominant yet jumbled societal views of good and bad behavior and worthy and unworthy individuals" (25).
Storytelling, of course, also has its drawbacks. Traditional social science research may regard narrative analysis as soft and weak. Yet, judicious scholars of public administration have long recognized that the applied nature of the field requires sound, qualitative studies of the kind advanced by Maynard-Moody and Musheno. This is a book about storytelling, and the authors make no bones about the fact that the book doesn't ask "how much or how many but rather how do people (in our case, street-level workers) comprehend and act in their work lives" (26). As the authors acknowledge, stories rightfully become the "most powerful research instrument" (26) here.
To be sure, storytellers are themselves biased, and will share only those stories they deem appropriate for "outsiders." Moreover, storytelling does not document the actual behaviors and actions of street-level workers, but rather the workers' narrative descriptions of what they do and how they do it. This creates obvious concerns for objectivity, a problem that tends to plague applied social science research generally.
Although the 48 narratives provide a rich, compelling picture of streetlevel bureaucratic behavior, this small sample impedes the ability to make broad generalizations and, hence, definitive conclusions about street-level work. In effect, some of the authors' conclusions are somewhat tenuous: "[T]he issues of discretion, control, and accountability that have so dominated the literature on public organizations rarely appear in our stories. These issues are not prominent for street-level workers" (93). Later, in the text we learn that "[s]treet-level workers do not see themselves as working for the state or ultimately accountable to elected officials. They insist that they work for citizen-clients rather than supervisors, agencies, or officials" (105). It is noble for street-level bureaucrats to advocate for their clients. But is it safe to conclude, based on so few cases, that street-level workers do not have any sense of accountability toward their supervisors, agencies, or the public at large? Or, that discretion is not central to the jobs of street-level workers? Are cops, for example, really unaware of the vast discretionary powers they wield?
See, Coble-Vinzant and Crothers (1998), who rely on their observations of 100 street-level workers in examining what these workers do, and Prottas (1979), who relies on four lengthy case studies.