When the State Meets the Street: Moral Agency and Discretionary Power at the Frontlines of Public Service

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When the State Meets the Street: Moral Agency and Discretionary Power at the Frontlines of Public Service

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Title: When the State Meets the Street: Moral Agency and Discretionary Power at the Frontlines of Public Service
Author: Zacka, Bernardo
Citation: Zacka, Bernardo. 2015. When the State Meets the Street: Moral Agency and Discretionary Power at the Frontlines of Public Service. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: When citizens interact with the state, they encounter street-level bureaucrats—the social service workers, police officers, counselors and educators responsible for implementing public policy and enforcing the law. These bureaucrats are caught in a predicament. The proper implementation of public policy depends on their capacity to act as sensible moral agents who can interpret vague directives, strike compromises between conflicting values, and adopt appropriate demeanors when interacting with clients. And yet, these bureaucrats must operate in a working environment that is notoriously challenging, and that tends, over time, to dampen their moral sensibility and to truncate their understanding of their role and responsibilities. While public bureaucracies depend on the moral agency of street-level bureaucrats, they proceed, at the same time, to undermine that very agency. My dissertation explores the factors that lead to this predicament, and the remedies that can be offered to it.

Instead of focusing on the moment of ethical decision-making, as organizational ethicists and moral philosophers frequently do, I put the accent on the moral dispositions that street-level bureaucrats develop while on the job—on how they understand themselves, how they perceive and interpret moral situations, and how they weigh various moral considerations. By shifting the object of analysis from decisions to dispositions, I bring into focus a family of pathological dispositions that are distinct from the well-known problems of corruption, rule-breaking, and abuse of discretion. These dispositions are troubling in a special sense: not because they are departures from the role that street-level bureaucrats are meant to play, but because they are reductive takes on it.

I explain why street-level bureaucrats are frequently drawn towards reductive dispositions, and argue that such a drift can only be counteracted through a combination of individual practices, group-level dynamics, and managerial policies. On each of these three fronts—individual, collegial, and managerial—the dissertation aims to shed light on the conditions that make moral agency possible in bureaucracy. It defends an approach to individual moral formation that departs from the traditional emphasis on autonomy and virtue, and that underscores the importance of situationally-specific practices of the self. It provides an account of how informal exchanges amongst peers can serve to anchor a model of accountability that is more flexible than those that rely on hierarchy and professional communities. It claims, finally, that managers are not simply responsible for designing incentive structures, but also for shaping the range of moral personalities that are available to their subordinates. Taken together, these arguments show how we can integrate the moral agency of frontline bureaucrats into a compelling normative theory of the state, and why we need to do so.

Throughout, the dissertation situates normative questions in a richly textured account of bureaucratic life that draws extensively on scholarship from across the social sciences, on literary and filmic representations of bureaucracy, and on eight months of participant observation that I conducted in an anti-poverty agency in Boston.
Terms of Use: This article is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Other Posted Material, as set forth at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:dash.current.terms-of-use#LAA
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:17467370
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