Bernardo Zacka, When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press at Harvard University, 2017). 337 pp. $35.00 (hardcover), ISBN: 978067454550

Date01 July 2019
Published date01 July 2019
616 Public Administration Review July | A ugus t 201 9
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 4, pp. 616–617. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13020.
Bernardo Zacka, When the State Meets the Street: Public
Service and Moral Agency (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press at
Harvard University, 2017). 337 pp. $35.00 (hardcover),
ISBN: 978067454550
This notable book identifies the complex moral
challenges of the street-level bureaucrat:
teachers, public officers, driving license
examiners, welfare caseworkers, and housing
inspectors. They represent government before
ordinary citizens. For example, a familiar situation
involves a sheriff’s deputy in the Maryland D.C.
suburban area. A deputy was sent to evict a family of
five, a mother with four children ranging in age from
4 to 17. Over $20,000 was overdue in rent. The father
was a part-time contract employee to a sub-Saharan
African embassy in Washington, who had left the
family for his home country some 6 weeks earlier with
previous rents unpaid. The involved deputy entered
the premises with the intent of serving the papers
and proceeding with removal of personal goods.
On hearing the story and facing the prospect of five
homeless people, the deputy felt concern for the fate
of the children in particular. He did not immediately
serve the eviction papers. He gave the family 10 days
to pay the rent to avoid eviction. The family was, in
fact, not evicted. Friends and neighbors connected
with the deputy and contacted the embassy where
the father worked as a consultant. Embassy officers
apparently pressured the father in Africa, who agreed
to pay the rent with over four monthly payments
oversought by the Sheriff’s office. This situation tested
moral agency—the fate of five people, as it involved
government to ordinary persons. The situation
demonstrates the predicaments with which frontline
government agents are most often engaged.
Bureaucracy at the street level, like in the Maryland
situation, can prove to be more flexible and ethically
challenging than is often understood. When the State
Meets the Street probes the complex moral lives of
street-level bureaucrats who represent governments’
human face to ordinary citizens. Too often dismissed
as soulless operators, these workers wield a significant
margin of discretion and make decisions that
profoundly affect people’s lives. Combining insights
from political theory with his own ethnographic
fieldwork, Zacka shows us firsthand the predicament
to which these public servants are entangled. His
portrait reveals bureaucratic life as more fluid and
ethically fraught than most realize. It invites us to
approach the political theory of the democratic state
from the bottom-up, thinking not just about what
policies the state should adopt but also about how it
ought to interact with citizens when implementing
these policies.
The issue of street-level discretion has received greater
currency (Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2003),
particularly as the 30th anniversary expanded edition
of Michael Lipsky’s Street Level Bureaucracy (2010)
appeared, and also with Steven Maynard-Moody
and Shannon Portillo’s (2010) dedicated chapter in
The Oxford Handbook of American Bureaucracy. Lipsky
again identified these actions as core bureaucratic
practices that notably shape programs and thus policy
as a function of worker–client coping mechanisms
while dealing with the needs of clients. Maynard-
Moody and Portillo also try to find a way beyond the
use of discretion by direct-contact workers, pointing
to the need “to move beyond the false distinction
prevalent to date between street-level discretion and
rule-based implementation” (233). Their analysis is
based on five foundational street-level worker insights:
their frontline stature, people processing actions,
possession of inherent discretion, decision-making
autonomy, and impacting policy at a basic level
(Zacka, 2016). Also, Evelyn Brodkin’s work on social
administration has brought out the variety of ways
in which practitioners use their discretion to adapt
to performance incentives, as in “These complex
adaptations lead to informal patterns of practice
that can reshape policy delivery, albeit in ways that
are not always readily visible and, certainly are not
made transparent through the performance metrics
themselves” (Brodkin, 2012).
Herein enters the work of Zacka, who combines his
background in political philosophy with fieldwork,
serving as a receptionist in an urban antipoverty
agency. To look at street-level bureaucrats one must
Reviewed by: Robert Agranoff
Indiana University, Bloomington
Robert Agranoff is professor emeritus
at the School of Public and Environmental
Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington.
Since 1990, he has been affiliated with
the government and public administration
program, Instituto Universitario Ortega y
Gasset in Madrid, Spain. He specializes
in intergovernmental relations and
management, and public/nonpublic network
studies. His current work includes two books
Crossing Boundaries for Intergovernmental
Management (Georgetown, 2017)
and Local Governments in Multilevel
Governance: The Administrative Dimension
(Lexington, 2018).

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