Street Level Bureaucracy Under Pressure: Job Insecurity, Business Logic and Challenging Users

Monday, 11 July 2016: 16:15
Location: Hörsaal BIG 1 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Micol BRONZINI, Department of Economics and Social Science, Italy
Diego COLETTO, Department of Sociology and Social Research, University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy
Public administrations are currently affected by different sources of pressure. In Italy, recent governments have attempted to rationalize public spending through top-down cutbacks, the introduction of managerial principles, and the reorganization of public services. Civil servants are undergoing a major transformation also in the relationship with users. The latter express differentiated needs and require greater consideration for their personal situation as a consequence of the process of individualization. At the same time, public opinion remains particularly critical, strengthening negative and stereotyped images of civil servants. Since Lipsky’s study of street level bureaucracy (1980) the presence of leeway due to the variety of requests and regulatory gaps is well known. However, there is little evidence on how this is changing nowadays considering the pressure ‘from above’ to adopt a business logic, the one ‘from below’, and the growing scarcity of resources. Preliminary findings have shown the persistence of significant variations to the standard procedures, in which the discretionary power of public operators still plays an important role. Analyzing everyday practice, a huge effort for the absorption of institutional changes and for mediation between contrasting goals seems to emerge. In this background, we show some preliminary results of two case studies that are part of a broader project covering different fields (social work, healthcare, education, public security, housing and employment centres). Drawing on ethnographic observations and interviews with bureaucrats and managers of public offices (specifically, housing organizations and employment offices), the paper aims to analyze how the new managerial regime, on one hand, and the challenges in the relationship with users, on the other, are reflected in the work cultures, but also in the strategies public servants employ daily. Some questions have driven our work: is the introduction of managerial practices actually reducing discretional power? Is a new organizational culture emerging?