What do the working conditions of street-level bureaucrats tell us about the nature of democratic governance? What new moral questions do we start asking when political theorists go into the field? Join us for the latest conversation on the Governance Podcast between John Meadowcroft (King’s College London) and Bernardo Zacka (MIT) on Zacka’s new book: When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency.
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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.
0:32: What drove you to write this book and what’s the overarching argument?
3:20: The empirical focus of the book is on the street level bureaucrats, the front-line workers. Who are those people?
6:02: Why do street level bureaucrats determine the way you interact with the state?
8:04: What is the size of street level bureaucracy? How many people are you talking about?
12:07: You undertook some original ethnography inside a bureau. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
15:54: How did the other bureau workers respond to you, knowing you were a researcher?
17:57: Your background first and foremost is as a political theorist. How do ethnography and political theory fit together?
20:49: I can’t help but think of Rawls there—the most influential political theory work of the second half of the 20th century – the Theory of Justice is a book in which there are no implementation problems whatsoever. The state just makes decisions and they’re implemented without difficulty.
21:59: Let’s think about some of the moral dilemmas that street level bureaucrats encounter. In the book you describe three pathologies of street level bureaucracy… You describe how street level bureaucrats take on a role of indifference, a role as a caregiver, and a role as an enforcer. What are those three roles and how do they emerge?
26:52: There are pressures of resources, of time, of money, on the street level bureaucrats. There’s psychological pressure as well. My personal reaction is that the bureaucrats’ responses seem perfectly reasonable. They’re how I would react in those situations.
29:56: Another striking thing is that these people aren’t well paid. The bureaucrats themselves are struggling.
31:16: There’s also ambiguity at the high level. You describe the overall manager of the organization who’s got a particular view of how the centre should be run… her aim was to create a welcoming environment different to other governmental agencies.
34:25: This description of the importance of the personal in public service delivery, and how people’s personal decisions may determine people’s outcomes made me think of another literature which you don’t really discuss in the book but is very present at the moment – and that’s the work on behavioural economics…. For example, the time of day you see a judge can determine the sentence you receive. Is that complementary to what you’re doing?
37:24: That raises one of the boldest claims in the book. You write that street level bureaucracy erodes and truncates the moral responsibilities of the workers. I think later in the book you may be less bold in the claim, but I wonder, would the bureaucrats and clients you met with agree with that?
41:52: What do you advocate we change in the system to help prevent these moral distortions at the street level?
44:45: This is one of the big questions for me reading the book—at times you’re advocating a moral craft.
48:34: As a political theorist, the final set of questions must relate to how this should make us think about democracy and the state.