Magazine article Renewal

Subversive Citizens: Power, Agency and Resistance in Public Services

Magazine article Renewal

Subversive Citizens: Power, Agency and Resistance in Public Services

Article excerpt

Marian Barnes and David Prior (eds.)


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, Olliff-Cooper et al., 2009; Localis/KPMG, 2009; Haldenby et 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. In Publics, Politics and Power: Remaking the Public in Public Services, Newman and Clarke note that new categories of occupation may be differently classed, raced or gendered from the "traditional" professions ...' Citizens too are occupying different roles, combining 'an apparent increase in power (as partner, as customer) with increasing responsibilities (to participate in policy making or service delivery, to make informed choices' (Newman and Clarke, 2009, 62, 5). Nor are these identities (worker, citizen) one-dimensional: many people span multiple roles: resident, consumer, volunteer, public service worker, etc. This account of the diversity of roles and relationships is a corrective to descriptions of the front-line which depict a simple doctor-patient, teacher-pupil, client-social worker interface.

Second, the book usefully challenges the assumption that counter-agency should always be seen in heroic terms, as staff and users refuse to comply with governmentimposed norms of citizenship. Particularly at a time when services are under severe financial strain it is tempting to see the front-line professional as 'hero practitioner' (Morris and Burford, p. 126), bending the rules to help people get the support that they need. However the chapters indicate that subversion cannot be regarded inevitably as either progressive or defensive. Prior notes that he is not offering 'some form of romantic expression of underdog defiance or of revolutionary solidarity between workers and citizens.' He goes on: 'The identification of counter-agency may help to explain why official policy and practice does not always deliver the results as intended; but it does not necessarily imply the presence of radically progressive alternative outcomes' (p. 32).

Third, alongside subversion by workers and citizens, the book helpfully reminds us that governments too can act subversively. Although written before the coalition came to power, Sullivan's chapter on government as subverter in the context of local government reform seems particularly timely given the policy ambitions of Pickles, Lansley and Gove. Ministers here are deliberately subverting norms and destabilising institutionalised governance processes in order to disrupt existing power relationships. The avowed goals (more efficient services, better outcomes, liberated professionals, empowered citizens, etc.) seem at least as uncertain as with other forms of subversion.

Barnes and Prior continue to publish (together and separately) work that helps to make sense of the complex and contested nature of public policy. Their article on choice in public services, published several years before choice became New Labour's watchword, remains a classic summary of the limits of consumerism in public services (Barnes and Prior, 1995). In this current collection, they have compiled a rich account of the subversive practices of citizens, workers and government. Counter-agency at the front-line is particularly germane to the current era in which a hegemonic discourse of cuts leaves little space for policy debate. However, Barnes, Prior and their contributors encourage us to reflect on the uncertain and uneven impacts that subversion will have.


Barnes, M. and Prior, D. (1995) 'Spoilt for choice? How consumerism can disempower public service users', Public Money & Management 15 (3): 53-8.

Haldenby, A. et al. (2009) The Front Line, London, Reform.

H. M. Government (2009) Putting the Front Line First, London, TSO.

Localis / KPMG (2009) The Bottom Line - A Vision for Local Government.

Newman, J. E. and Clarke, J. (2009) Publics, Politics and Power: Remaking the Public in Public Services, London, Sage.

Olliff-Cooper, J. et al. (2009) Leading From the Front, London, Demos.

Catherine Needham is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London, and an Associate Editor of Renewal.

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