Street-level bureaucrats and the UK’s Better Regulation agenda: are the two compatible?

This post is based on Harry Barton’s MSc dissertation, which he completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Harry Barton

Since Michael Lipsky’s seminal 1980 text ‘Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of The Individual in Public Services’, which argues that public policy can only be understood in the crowded offices and daily encounters of the street-level public servant, an extensive body of work has been established on the subject.

The regulatory arena, and the important role of inspectors at the front-line of regulatory activity, is one area of study that this literature has only recently begun to capitalise on.

‘Better’, ‘responsive’, ‘risk-based’ regulation, as extolled by the twin reviews of Hampton and Macrory, has become the accepted operating model for many British regulatory bodies. This has had an impact on the organisation and operationalisation of their street-level staff, with the potential to marginalise their role, at the same time as the rise of ‘managerialism’ in public bureaucracies more generally.

However, because of their enduring relationship with ‘clients’, street-level bureaucrats continue to influence public policy. The changing face and form of front-line (or ‘near-line’) regulatory staff elucidates an increasingly more nuanced and subjective typology of street-level bureaucrat.

In order to unpick this, my research study focused on three broad themes of analysis adapted from the literature:

  1. The dynamics of the regulatory encounter (key relationship: bureaucrat-client)
  2. How regulatory standards are determined in field practice (key relationship: bureaucracy-bureaucrat)
  3. Pressures and demands on the individual inspector (key relationship: bureaucracy-bureaucrat-client)

Interviews conducted with regional regulatory staff evidenced a broad conformation with three explanatory variables found in the non-regulatory literature for the autonomy of street-level bureaucrats:

  • Professional values and ‘institutions’ and the extent to which groups lock themselves into strategies either of resistance or accommodation.
  • The rules and regulations embedded within the organisation and the degree to which decision-making responsibility is delegated along hierarchical lines.
  • The complexity of the tasks undertaken and the extent to which role clarity is present in the workplace.

A number of case-specific factors cut across the analytical themes under investigation, suggesting a compound effect on street-level bureaucrats: ‘Structural conflicts’ caused by the perseverance of the previous bureau-professional culture, at odds with the imposition of the paradigm of responsive regulation and causing confusion for regulated firms; discord with regards to certain policy positions adopted as a result of a more ‘responsive’ and streamlined approach; and an ambiguous legal framework – responsive regulation is predicated on the mutual recognition of what the law requires of regulatees.

The conflict and indeterminacy from a number of angles provokes classic ‘coping mechanisms’ due to the pressure this creates on street-level bureaucrats in fulfilling what they see as their primary regulatory role (e.g. protecting the public). Street-level bureaucratic behaviours (discretion and coping) were apparent in front-line staff as well as ‘near-line’ management, albeit on an inconsistent basis – in congruence with the inconsistency with which staff may have been managed and processes executed.

These findings lead me to make the following recommendations:

  • Staff need to be given the opportunity to deal with indeterminacy by building confidence in their own position and judgement.
  • Would-be responsive regulators need to ensure the buy-in of their people on the ground, through full involvement in change processes to give them ownership of the new responsive regime.
  • Staff need to be clear not just about the range of compliance activities and actions that may be taken (the ‘regulatory smorgasbord’), but the breadth and depth of the portions of its regulatory ‘pyramid’ (see Macrory) and the regularity with which their organisation dare venture to the summit.

Otherwise there is a risk that susceptible staff are pushed away, discretion and coping behaviours take over, and that cooperative and collaborative relationships that have been built up with clients lead to negative regulatory outcomes and/or regulatory capture.

There is seemingly a lack of consideration in both the street-level bureaucratic and the responsive regulation literature for the establishment and development of bureaucracy-bureaucrat-client relationships over time (within the regulatory environment), whereby shifting internal and external social, institutional and individual factors could, for example, subvert or short-circuit the decision making and processual elements of the traditional street-level/regulatory experience.

Just as there are peaks and troughs in the economy, natural oscillations occur over time in the regulatory spectrum from self-regulation to command regulation (as witnessed recently in financial services regulation), creeping up and down the regulatory pyramid, placing different levels and forms of indeterminacy on bureaucrats at any one time. This is a difficult journey to predict or plan for, but scenario or strategic planning could be attempted, whilst regulators need to continue managing regulatee expectations to balance ‘regulatory certainty’ with programmes of ‘developmental regulation’. If not, responsive regulation will not fulfil its promise: as regulators wait for risk analyses and assumptions to do the work for them, the industry moves on.

 In a regulatory environment, street-level bureaucrat ‘professionalism’ has traditionally been built on the ability of bureaucrats to identify and assess risk and to employ the appropriate response using judgement. The onset of the risk-based approach to regulation has merely introduced a ‘system-level’ method of considering risk which if implemented incorrectly could disempower street-level bureaucrats and trigger coping mechanisms and discretion in different ways amongst front-line staff and at management level. This could create unintended consequences, undermining the credibility and effectiveness of regulatory regimes. In the UK, recent scandals, such as horsemeat in beef products, suppression of whistleblowers and cover-ups in the NHS and CQC, as well as the introduction of a ‘judgement-led’ regulatory regime in financial services regulation, have begun to reflect poorly on risk-based regulation, while its arbiters continue to ruminate rather than regulate.


Harry Barton has worked in local government and for different regulatory bodies. His research interests include the construction of public policy, participative democracy, project, programme and change management. The biggest motivator in choosing this topic for his research project was to understand more about how the public sector should go about developing the skills and personnel it needs to be effective in the future. Follow his Twitter feed here.

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