Academic journal article Public Administration Review

From Street-Level to System-Level Bureaucracies: How Information and Communication Technology Is Transforming Administrative Discretion and Constitutional Control (1)

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

From Street-Level to System-Level Bureaucracies: How Information and Communication Technology Is Transforming Administrative Discretion and Constitutional Control (1)

Article excerpt

The Issue: Discretionary Power of Civil Servants in the Constitutional State

Bureaucracy is no longer what it once was. The term conjures up mental visions of massive buildings in which large groups of men--bureaucrats are, without exception, men--encumbered by stacks of files frown heavily into duplicates and triplicates of important reports embellished with impressive-looking signatures. Bureaucrats are well known to be small-minded pencil pushers who can reject or approve an application for no better reason than the fact that your existence has somehow annoyed them.

This was the specter that haunted Weber, Hayek, and Popper: Large numbers of faceless officials whose freies Ermessen (discretionary power) could cause an open society to be smothered in the bud. Decades of legal and administrative ingenuity have been devoted to curtailing the influence of these tiny cogs in the wheel of power. An elaborate system of legal protection and the sweeping application of the principles of sound administration over the past decades have more or less successfully led to the erection of a cordon sanitair around the majority of large-scale executive organizations. Hayek's prophecy of doom--in which he held that the rise of the welfare state, with its social benefits and subsidies, licenses and decisions, window clerks and discretionary powers, would irrevocably lead us on a road to serfdom--has become a self-denying prophecy (Hayek 1944, 1960). A constitutional and a welfare state have ultimately been shown to be reconcilable.

Meanwhile, the large-scale executive public agencies of the welfare state appear to be quietly undergoing a fundamental change of character internally. Information communication and technology (ICT) is one of the driving forces behind this transformation. Window clerks are being replaced by Web sites, and advanced information and expert systems are taking over the role of case managers and adjudicating officers. Instead of noisy, disorganized decision-making factories populated by fickle officials, many of these executive agencies are fast becoming quiet information refineries, in which nearly all decisions are pre-programmed by algorithms and digital decision trees. Today, a more true-to-life vision of the term "bureaucracy" would be a room filled with softly humming servers, dotted here and there with a system manager behind a screen.

This article explores the implications of this transformation from the perspective of the democratic, constitutional state. What does it entail for the democratic control of administrative power and for the rule of law? Will it hasten the fulfillment of the doomsday scenarios of Weber, Popper, and Hayek, or is it the consummation of the ideal of perfect legal and rational authority? How does this transformation relate to the ideals of the constitutional state? Which constitutional ideal is actually served by ICT?

First, we will take a look at how the "traditional" street-level bureaucracy ultimately became embedded in the democratic constitutional state over the course of the twentieth century. Then we will describe how the development of ICT has prompted some of these large executive agencies to transform into screen-level, and even system-level bureaucracies. In each case, we will be guided by three questions: (1) To what extent is there an exercise of administrative power, and in what respect is this problematic from the perspective of the constitutional state? (2) What institutional arrangements are available to constrain these practices? (3) What is the underlying ideal of the constitutional state?

Street-Level Bureaucracies and the Constitutional State

Street-Level Bureaucrats as Policy Makers

Many contacts between citizens and public authorities involve individual transactions. Citizens ask for a benefit, rent rebate, or a permit, and they hand in their tax return or are ticketed now and again. …

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