Monday, 27 June 2011

Street level bureaucrats and the middle classes

"I'm going to write to my councillor and complain!" This is my usual, somewaht ironic, refrain whenever anything mildly irritating crosses my path. To be honest, the last time I contacted the City of Edinburgh Council was about that listed building consent application. The thing that annoys me most if the many potholes designed to kill cyclists on Edinburgh's roads, and if I reported them my full time job would be emailing Clarence. And yet, in a lot of our work on concentrated deprivation - it's an implicit theorisation behind mixed communities and community development - we presume that middle-class professionals do more regularly contact our local service providers and are more likely to get a better service as a result. This is something I'm intrigued about...

And, after my previous post, I've now finished Street Level Bureaucrats. By the end, a few things really struck me. Firstly, was Lipsky's real sympathy for public sector workers. He paints a bloomin' horrible picture of the many structural constraints that go against public servants doing what they want to do - provide a very good level of service to all. Secondly, in producing the new edition of the book, all he did was add a new preface and a new concluding chapter. In this concluding chapter he asserts that the book has stood the test of time - and I agree. And I also agree with him is that all that has happened since his book was first published is things have got worse as the ideological attacks on the state have increased. The obsession with managerialism, efficiency and all the rest of it just produces perverse incentives and ineffective services.

Finally, and more broadly, I really liked that his category of analysis was so broad - street level bureaucrats. Those everyday people who make decisions that distribute resources that make up "policy". Not policeman, not teachers, but bureaucrats. Interestingly, I just searched Web of Knowledge for "street level bureaucrats" and the 83 results all focused on single service areas, rather than the broad sweep. I particularly like the broad category of analysis because it resonated with the literature review I'm slogging through on middle class community activism. We're trying to develop a "middle theory" of how public sector agencies and the middle-classes (people like us) engage. We're having to focus on specific policy areas, for example education (pushy parents), planning (rural NIMBYs) because that is the way policy research is broken down. But I think the broader sweep will be more interesting. Already it's quite clear that pushy parents and rural NIMBYs use similar cultural capital to exclude non-middle class people and improve things for themselves and I wouldn't be surprised if this happens across services. With the move to local authorities and other organisations using call centres, and the generic nature of staff who support elected officials, for me the greatest interest is in the general engagements between staff and the public.

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