A Cross-Sectional Study on the Relationship Between Street-Level Bureaucrats’ Role Identity and Their Discretionary Decision-Making Practice toward Citizen-Clients

Published date01 May 2023
AuthorDidde Cramer Jensen,Michael Mulbjerg Pedersen
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(5) 868 –891
© The Author(s) 2023
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DOI: 10.1177/00953997231157752
A Cross-Sectional Study
on the Relationship
Between Street-Level
Bureaucrats’ Role
Identity and Their
Discretionary Decision-
Making Practice toward
Didde Cramer Jensen1
and Michael Mulbjerg Pedersen2
This study tests the hypothesis that the role identity of street-level
bureaucrats is related to variation in their discretionary decisions in relation
to the behavior of citizen-clients. The study draws on crosssectional
survey data on 465 officers from prisons in Denmark. Results from the
study show a negative correlation between prison officers role identity as
formalistic (state-agent) and the likelihood of differentiating in response
to citizen-clients’ behavior. Correspondingly, the results shows a positive
relationship between informal rule identification (citizen-agent) and
differential responses against citizen-client behavior. The findings indicate
a causal relationship between street-level bureaucrats’ role identity and
their discretionary decisions.
1VIVE – The Danish Center for Social Science Research, Kobenhavn, Denmark
2Aarhus University, The Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus, Denmark
Corresponding Author:
Didde Cramer Jensen, VIVE – The Danish Center for Social Science Research, Herluf Trolles
Gade 11, Copenhagen K 1052, Denmark.
Email: dcj@vive.dk
1157752AAS0010.1177/00953997231157752Administration & SocietyJensen and Pedersen
Jensen and Pedersen 869
street-level bureaucracy, discretionary decision-making practice, role
identity, interaction, citizen-client behavior
Interactions with citizen-clients establish a defining characteristic for street-
level work (Hupe & Buffat, 2014), and, because street-level bureaucrats inter-
act with citizen-clients on a daily basis, the content of this interaction becomes
important for the delivery of public policy (Maynard-Moody & Musheno,
2000, 2003). However, interaction with citizen-clients is a dilemma-tainted
affair, as different notions of authority, responsibility, and accountability exist
in modern governance (Bartels, 2013; Hupe & Hill, 2007). On the one hand,
the norms of bureaucracy call for a specific and affectively neutral relationship
between street-level bureaucrats and citizen-clients (Meier, 2000). Bureaucrats
are required to manage their emotions (Vigoda-Gadot & Meisler, 2010), uphold
an impartial approach to citizen-clients and act based on professional expertise,
written rules and procedures (Bartels, 2013; Meier, 2000). On the other hand,
bureaucrats must be responsive to human needs and provide distinctive and
fully appropriate responses to individual citizen-clients and their respective
situations (Evans, 2014). Dubois (2010), when explaining how bureaucrats
must deal with such conflicting imperatives, labels this dichotomy “the two
bodies of the bureaucrat.”
According to Maynard-Moody and Musheno (2003, 2012), this tension
can be understood as a fundamental dilemma in the narrative understanding
of professional role identities that street-level bureaucrats can take on in their
job: “state-agent” versus “citizen-agent.” The state-agent narrative promotes
abidance to rules, training and formal procedures. In contrast to this, the citi-
zen-agent narrative promotes normative or cultural abidance, identifying
those who are worthy citizens-clients and those who are not.
According to Loyens et al. (2019), the role identities that street-level
bureaucrats take on in their work is important, as they may influence both the
way in which they interpret their encounters with citizen-clients, and the way
in which they respond to the behavior of citizen-clients (p. 87). On the basis
of insights from identity theory, we test whether or not the meaning that
street-level bureaucrats attach to their professional role identity may affect
the manner in which they interpret the behavior of citizen-clients. We ask: is
there a correlation between street-level bureaucrats’ role identity and their
discretionary response to citizen-client behavior?
Empirical studies demonstrate that street-level bureaucrats may let them-
selves be influenced by citizen-client behavior when they make discretionary

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