Putting Street-Level Organizations First: New Directions for Social Policy and Management Research
Brodkin, Evelyn Z., Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory
This symposium offers an approach to policy and management research that puts organizations first, specifically, the street-level organizations that bring policy directly to people (Lipsky 1980). This approach recognizes that street-level organizations are more than mere conduits for social policy. Beyond their obvious importance as policy implementers, street-level organizations put their own imprint on policy and, in the process, effectively determine "who gets what, when and how" (Lasswell 1958). Directly investigating how these organizations operate as policy intermediaries opens up a broad set of important questions at the intersection of policy, management, and organizational studies.
Contributions to this symposium treat street-level organizations as the vantage point from which to examine questions about social policy and management. In adopting this perspective, they give analytic primacy to lower level discretion in policy implementation. But in contrast to principal-agent theory, this approach does not necessarily regard discretion as a matter of either "compliance" or "subversion." Rather, it is interested in what influences, and especially what systematizes, the exercise of discretion, producing informal organizational routines that effectively constitute policy on the ground. The street-level approach also differs from policy studies of "what works" or management studies linking specific interventions to particular outcomes or outputs. Instead, it seeks to illuminate how organizations work, considering both their internal dynamics and their relationship to the larger polity and society. This research is either theory driven or theoretically grounded, allowing for systematic inquiry into what street-level organizations construct as policy through their informal practices, how they do it, and why they produce policy in the ways that they do.
Research that puts street-level organizations first aims at the opaque spaces between formal policies and outcomes, in part, by making visible the organizational mechanisms that link (or de-link) them. But it does more than that. It also extends analysis beyond expected, preferred, or even acknowledged outputs and outcomes. It builds on the premise that what street-level organizations do in the name of policy is not limited to what formal policy would seem to require. It challenges the researcher to consider street-level organizations as embedded in the broader political economy and society and, therefore, to take up questions about what else street-level organizations do when they do policy work. By opening a window on what goes on inside organizations, it provides a perspective from which to consider the relationship of street-level practices to social and political forces ostensibly at work outside these organizations. Managerial strategies have critical importance because they affect the informal dynamics of street-level practice and, thus, alter how organizations work and what they produce.
The street-level approach to policy research links scholarly work from related fields, among them research on human services organizations, street-level bureaucracy, policy implementation, public management, and social politics. Although work in each of these fields stands on its own, the problem is that, indeed, it usually does. A street-level lens provides strategies for investigating questions of common interest located at the intersection of these fields. Its central task is to expose the informal practices through which policies--and by extension social politics and social relations--are effectively negotiated, although rarely explicitly so. It seeks to make visible and understandable informal organizational practices that otherwise can escape analytic scrutiny and even recognition.
Each of the contributions to this symposium adopts an approach that places street-level organizations at the analytic center. Although they share a common concern with welfare policy, they differ in their theoretical and applied interests. …