Governance at Ground Level: The Frontline Bureaucrat in the Age of Markets and Networks

Article excerpt

Many governments have attempted to rearm their public management systems over the past decade. But how do reforms play out at the ontline of government where the work is done? We looked at the impacts of system changes on frontline staff. In an effort to understand the actual work orientations of ontline bureaucrats, we identified four distinctive images of bureaucratic work: procedural bureaucracy, corporate bureaucracy, market bureaucracy, and network bureaucracy. These images each have different foci on the use of goals, relationships with clients, approach to supervision, disciplinary strategies, and relations with other key organizations in their environment. Looking at government, private nonprofit, and private r-profit organizations, we found only three distinct images. The distinct market and corporate orientations we proposed merged into a single orientation not previously identified or analyzed in the research literature. We also und considerable variation among ontline bureaucrats in their orientations toward bureaucracy. Practitioners appeared to follow three common repertoires, but these were not determined by the type of organization they worked in. Managers wishing to prioritize ontline work may now identify the key attributes of these alternate approaches and compare them with performance information or use them to assess the training needs of agencies contributing to their programs. Clients and their advocates may also use these results to assess their changing prospects under different bureaucratic conditions.

Perhaps there was a time when the term "bureaucracy" had a settled meaning and the institutions that it defined had a standard purpose. If so, this time has passed. In its place has emerged a variety of bureaucracies, temporary and fixed, public and private. Each lays claim to a share of popular attention and provokes supporters and critics. This profusion of bureaucracies raises important questions concerning the work that bureaucrats do, and through this, about the meaning of governance in the contemporary period.

Contemporary research and a popular discourse describe changes in how governments, administrators, and theorists wish to define the key tasks of contemporary public officials and the contractors employed to assist them (Aucoin, 1990; Boston et al., 1991; Caiden and Seidentopf, 1982; Knott and Miller, 1987; Kooiman, 1993). Much of this literature takes the side of elected government in seeking to explain the organizational changes needed to improve public service accountability, lower cost, and improve economic performance (Considine, 1994; Pollitt, 1990; Pusey, 1991; March and Olsen, 1983; Metcalf and Richards, 1984).

This concern with new ways to organize public bureaucratic work overlaps with the widespread adoption of strategies of privatization, decentralization, and contracting-out (Handler, 1996; Le Grand and Bartlett, 1993; Salamon, 1989), notwithstanding the obvious conflict involved when policymakers attempt to improve public organizations while simultaneously proposing to sell or abolish them.

Many reformers include in their frame of reference a consideration of certain new norms and rules of conduct for the public official at the local, or ground level (see for example, Barzeley, 1992; Osborne & Gaebler, 1993). But for the most part, the literature has concerned itself with systemwide issues, or with changes in management behavior.

Less attention has been given to the way ordinary officials reshape their roles in these times of significant structural change. Smith and Lipsky (1993) and Handler (1996) are exceptions to this general rule, providing valuable studies of local level effects in the US case.

The systemwide changes described in the literature and publicized in the mass media are now so widespread in their effects in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, and so persistent in their hold on the attention of successive generations of reformers, that we may logically expect them to have had major influences upon the local level behaviors, expectations, and strategies of ordinary public officials. …