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Street-Level Bureaucracy in the COVID-19 Pandemic Era

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Heyward
January 13, 2020 

In the recent history of the United States, it has been unheard of for the national population to have to stay home, businesses temporarily and permanently closing, social distancing, wearing masks, toilet paper missing in action, the New York Stock Exchange working remotely and K-12 instruction suspended and re-invented simultaneously and nationwide. Street-level bureaucrats and other professionals in the field of public administration have been expected to deliver public services in the midst of a rapidly growing infectious disease and exponential numbers of cases and deaths. A major impediment to public service delivery was the level of emergency preparedness for a pandemic. This includes not only how to address the COVID-19 pandemic, but also how to continue public service delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public administration has the ongoing challenge of trying to solve problems with innovation while attempting to balance the expectations of diverse stakeholders. Innovation can be characterized as the application of concepts or approaches to solve complex, tame and wicked problems. The COVID-19 pandemic is a wicked problem.

In 2010, Michael Lipsky characterized street-level bureaucracy and described the complexities of street-level bureaucrats’ job duties and working environment in his book, Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. Street-level bureaucrats serve as the face of policy execution and public service delivery to the public. They influence public service outcomes for citizens to include receiving and not receiving public services and perceptions of the government. A street-level bureaucrat can be a police officer, public health worker, K-12 teacher, social worker or a customer service representative at the tax office. The job description of street-level bureaucrats mandates direct connection with the public on a regular basis and generally has a certain amount of latitude, which is known as discretion, in performing duties as they relate to public service delivery. Discretion is characterized as the amount of latitude a street-level bureaucrat can employ when performing job duties and making decisions regarding public service delivery. Employing discretion serves as a nod to the Social Contract Theory put forward by John Locke in his book, Two Treatises of Government. Locke described discretion as a prerogative and necessary for effectual and well-ordered governance.

Street-level bureaucrats and other public administration professionals can be viewed as having been placed in impossible situations in the COVID-19 pandemic while addressing other problems. In 2017, Bernardo Zacka described impossible situations in his book, When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency. He characterized impossible situations as mandating street-level bureaucrats to perform duties that are out of the realm of possibility; achieve goals that are diametrically opposed; and to behave in a manner that is counter to public servants’ job purposes and duties. The COVID-19 pandemic presented opposing situations in public health versus the economy. Advocates of the economy pushed back on COVID-19 in the sense that the economy should be open as the number of cases and deaths increased. The described problem impacted the economy because of the prevention and risk management measures employed. Public health was impacted because of the lack of or decrease in adherence to wearing masks and social distancing. Street-level bureaucrats are expected to solve all the problems at the same time as processing changing circumstances.

Public health workers are expected to test individuals for COVID-19 but there is a deficit in supplies. Patients are expected to be treated but healthcare workers need PPE equipment to maintain their own health and administer healthcare. Law enforcement is expected to enforce law and order and maintain peace as much as possible while contending with public health, political and other complex problems. State and local government officials are expected to take care of their own individual state and local responses including providing the necessary resources to address the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a nod to Federalism in the 21st century. K-12 teachers are expected to effectively teach in hybrid and remote environments, as is not safe for all students to be in the classroom without increasing the community spread.

In 2017, Zacka discussed street-level bureaucrat responses to impossible situations to include leaving, communicating and devotion. The morale has decreased in some law enforcement sectors, which has led to resignations and early retirements. Over the last several months, there has been an increasing trend of K-12 teachers resigning as they do not want to do in-person instruction nor be responsible for the care of students in the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health workers have publicly communicated the impact of COVID-19 on patient care and healthcare operations. Physicians and nurses have employed an endearingly high level of bedside manner with patients, as one of the consequences of COVID-19 is isolation from others. Their devotion, at times, has been at the expense of being with their own families and taking care of their mental and emotional health. Design thinking focuses on the intended beneficiary or recipient in the innovation process. Street-level bureaucracy and other areas of public administration can benefit from design thinking in terms of keeping the front-line worker in mind in policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Working in public administration is truly a service career.


Author: April Heyward is a 3rd Year Doctor of Public Administration Student at Valdosta State University and has worked for the state of South Carolina for over a decade. She can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/heyward_april. For more information on April, visit www.aprilheyward.com. All opinions and views are her own and does not reflect the views and opinions of her affiliations.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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