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About the Talk

When citizens interact with the state, they encounter street-level bureaucrats—the welfare workers, police officers, counselors and educators responsible for implementing public policy and enforcing the law. By combining political theory with participant observation in a public service agency, I argue that street-level bureaucrats are caught in a troubling predicament. The proper implementation of public policy depends on their capacity to act as sensible moral agents, yet they must operate in a bureaucratic environment that tends to truncate that very moral agency.

Political theorists have offered a plethora of explanations as to why bureaucracy undermines moral agency, but these do not travel well to the street level. The literature in social psychology on coping mechanisms is more illuminating, and can help us understand how the pressures of everyday work gradually force street-level bureaucrats into a variety of reductive moral dispositions. I suggest that resisting the drift towards such dispositions call less for the development of a set of virtuous character traits than for the judicious deployment of a regime of everyday practices of the self, and the creation of an organizational culture sensitive to a plurality of competing normative considerations.

 About the Speaker:

Bernardo Zacka is an Assistant Professor of political science at MIT. He is a political theorist with an interest in ethnographic methods. His research focuses on the normative challenges that arise in the course of public policy implementation. He is interested in understanding how the organizational environment in which public officials are situated affects their capacity to operate as sound and balanced moral agents. Zacka is also interested, more broadly, in normative political theory, architecture and urbanism, and 20th century European political thought.

Zacka’s first book, When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency, was published by Harvard University Press in 2017. It explores the everyday moral lives of the frontline public workers, or “street-level bureaucrats”, who act as intermediaries between citizens and the state. It won the 2018 Charles Taylor book award from the Interpretive Methodologies and Methods group of the American Political Science Association, and it builds on Zacka’s doctoral dissertation, which won the 2015 Robert Noxon Toppan prize for the best dissertation on a subject of political science at Harvard University.

Prior to joining MIT, Zacka was a junior research fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT (2005), and received his Ph.D. from the Department of Government at Harvard University in 2015.