Bernardo Zacka, When the State Meets the Street – Public Service and Moral Agency (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017). 337 pp. $35.00 (hardcover), ISBN: 9780674545540

Published date01 January 2019
Date01 January 2019
140 Public Administration Review Januar y | Fe brua ry 201 9
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 1, pp. 140–141. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13019.
Nissim Cohen is the head of the
Department of Public Administration
and Policy and The Center for Public
Management and Policy (CPMP) at the
University of Haifa in Israel. His research
interests include the interactions between
politicians and bureaucrats, public
budgeting, street-level bureaucracy, policy
entrepreneurship, and social and healthcare
Bernardo Zacka, When the State Meets the Street – Public
Service and Moral Agency (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 2017). 337 pp. $35.00
(hardcover), ISBN: 9780674545540
Since 1980, when Michael Lipsky first
published his groundbreaking book, Street-
Level Bureaucracy, many public policy and
administration scholars have written numerous books,
articles, chapters, and research papers on the role of
frontline workers in the policy process and their strong
influence on policy outcomes. This mass of research is
based on various basic assumptions and perspectives,
and originates from various policy domains, contexts,
and geographical areas. The inevitable conclusion of
these theoretical and empirical efforts is so simple
and yet so important: street-level bureaucracy matters.
The real need to examine how street-level bureaucrats
think and act is as urgent as ever. Their informal
implementation practices, located at the interface
between government and citizens, directly influence
the lives and fate of many individuals—both in
democratic and nondemocratic regimes.
Zacka’s book, which is based on the author’s own
ethnographic fieldwork as a receptionist in an urban
antipoverty agency in a large city in the northeastern
United States, is a well-written contribution to the
implementation literature. He explores how street-level
bureaucrats experience their everyday work, how their
understanding of their roles and responsibilities is shaped
by the environment in which they function, and how
well their behavior and self-understanding “stack up”
against the desirable values that we would expect in a
modern democratic state. More specifically, he discusses
how street-level bureaucrats ought to perform their role
as agents of the state in terms of the moral sensibilities,
affective dispositions, and role conceptions that we
expect them ideally to have. The author examines the
factors that contribute to the erosion of moral sensibility
and what it takes to remain a balanced moral agent in
the street-level bureaucrats’ challenging environment.
One of the original contributions of the book is the
author’s use of insights from political theory. I found
it so very refreshing to read a book on street-level
bureaucracy that is full of the thoughts of political
scientists. Such an approach distinguishes the
book from many other contributions to the policy
implementation literature. While the contribution of
implementation scholars coming from management,
behavioral, and many other important disciplines is
unquestionable, the implementation literature should
not neglect the main core of public administration: the
political sciences. However, while Zacka rightly claims
that “street-level bureaucrats have received surprisingly
little attention from political theorists” (16), the real
wonder is why many implementation scholars tend to
neglect political theory. This reality is part of a wider
ongoing phenomenon of what scholars define as the
identity crisis of the public administration discipline,
a situation in which we seem to be somewhat unsure
of the historical and philosophical grounding of our
work (Denhardt 1981, p. 628). For many years, public
administration has suffered (Lee 1995; Meier 2007)
and is still suffering (Zalmanovitch 2014) from an
artificial and forced separation from politics. There are
various reasons for this separation (see, for example,
Haque 1996; Rutgers 1998).
Naturally, the book’s rich insights from political theory
come, in part, at the expense of potential insights
from current implementation studies. This book could
provide a more comprehensive understanding to its
readers by including more relevant implementation
studies. For example, Zacka normatively (and
correctly) argues that although street-level bureaucrats’
discretion “comes from the ambiguity of the goals that
frontline workers inherit from their superiors” (49),
they are expected to act as sensible moral agents in a
working environment that is notoriously challenging
and that conspires against them and “to respond to
a plurality of normative demands” (245). However,
he does not connect his discussion to one of the
main dilemmas street-level bureaucrats face in their
interactions with citizens: the question about whether
street-level bureaucrats are “state agents or citizen
agents.” As Maynard-Moody and Musheno (2000) have
explained, a significant part of street-level bureaucrats’
daily work involves the inconsistencies between formal
policies and people’s real needs. Another fruitful
Reviewed by: Nissim Cohen
University of Haifa
Book Review
Galia Cohen, Editor

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