Subversive Citizens: Power, Agency and Resistance in Public Services

By Needham, Catherine | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Subversive Citizens: Power, Agency and Resistance in Public Services


Needham, Catherine, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


Subversive Citizens: Power, Agency and Resistance in Public Services Marian Barnes and David Prior (eds.) POLICY PRESS, 2009

Reviewed by Catherine Needham

The front-line of public services - the place where staff interact with the people who use services - retains a somewhat mythic status. In ministerial speeches and policy pronouncements it is often celebrated as the site where the real work of public services goes on: 'let's get resources to the front-line and free up professionals to do their jobs'. Its value is celebrated through contrasts with the 'back office', where resources are seen as being wasted on pen-pushers and managers. Several reports in recent years have highlighted the front-line as the crucial site of effective practice (see, for example, OlliffCooper ef al., 2009; Localis/KPMG, 2009; Haldenby ef al., 2009; HM Government, 2009). The coalition government has committed itself to removing targets and easing the audit load so that professionals are free to get on with their job on the front-line.

However, the very name front-line draws attention to an alternative interpretation, suggestive of a place in which staff and citizens meet not to collaborate but to fight for power and resources. The Panaroma expose of the abuse at the Winterbourne View care home in Bristol reveals the scope for the front-line to be a site where vulnerable people are abused and neglected by staff. Rather than staff and users working co-productively to deliver better services, front-line staff can be gatekeepers pitted against service users in relationships of indifference or abuse.

Such contrasts reveal the extent to which the front-line is an intimate and emotive setting. The alchemy through which formal policies are translated into better health, education, care (as well as neglect and malpractice) is often obscured from public view. It takes place in the doctor's consulting room, the private interview room, the home visit, on the telephone, etc. The scope for staff and service users to pursue their own agenda, as distinct from formal guidelines, is large.

In Subversive Citizens, Marian Barnes and David Prior have gathered together an excellent set of chapters to reflect on ways in which front-line workers and citizens 'act in ways that modify, disrupt or negate the intended processes and outcomes of public policy' (p. 3). They draw on Michael Lipsky as a starting point. His 1980 book Street-Level Bureaucracy is a classic account of how and why front-line staff resisted management control of their work, determining policy through their actions. Barnes and Prior note that Lipsky's analysis needs to be updated for a context in which workers and users are more constrained than ever before by monitoring and regulation, but are also expected to work together in co-productive relationships as active and reflexive agents. In this altered terrain, there are various ways in which these staff and citizens can exercise counter-agency, sometimes together and sometimes separately. In a chapter looking at anti-social behaviour programmes, Prior identifies three forms of counter-agency: revision (i.e. objectives or outcomes are modified in course of implementation), resistance (strategies designed to achieve outcomes other than those prescribed in official policies) and refusal (potential users decline to become engaged in official strategies). Later chapters of the book explore these themes through careful theoretical exposition and rich case studies which cover topics such as family intervention projects, policing, and the Bail Support and Supervision scheme.

There are many cross-cutting themes in the book, which Barnes and Prior pull together in the final chapter, whilst resisting an overarching theory of subversion. Three themes in particular stand out. First, the discussions highlight the heterogeneity of public service roles and relationships. Many of the public service workforce do not fit into a traditional professional category: they are care workers, unpaid carers, medical support staff, and other ancillary roles which have proliferated since the era that Lipsky was observing. …

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