Impossible Jobs or Impossible Tasks? Client Volatility and Frontline Policing Practice in Urban Riots

Date01 March 2015
Published date01 March 2015
Kevin Morrell is associate professor of
governance at Warwick Business School.
His main interests concern governance and
narrative in public services organizations.
His book Organization, Society and
Politics: An Aristotelian Perspective
(Palgrave, 2012) connects these and other
themes, which also feature in recent work
in Accounting Organizations and
Society and Organization.
Graeme Currie is professor of
public management at Warwick Business
School. His main research interests cohere
around knowledge mobilization, human
resource management, leadership, and
innovation in public services organizations.
His recent work has appeared in Academy
of Management Journal, Human
Resource Management, Organization
Studies, and Public Administration
264 Public Administration Review • March | April 2015
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 2, pp. 264–275. © 2015 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12311.
context for our study—policing. Drawing on extensive
multisite, multimethod data, we analyze the policing of
riots. We conclude by outlining three theoretical exten-
sions to the “impossible jobs” framework.
Impossible Jobs
A number of related terms can describe the intractable
problems that public agencies sometimes face, among
them “wicked problems” (Rittel and Webber 1973),
“adaptive problems” (Heifetz 1994), or “messes” (Van
Bueren, Klijn, and Koppenjan 2003). When it comes
to considering these in relation to a job, the principal
framework that public administration scholars have
in mind is Lipsky’s (2010) street-level bureaucracy
(Brodkin 2011; Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2012).
For street-level bureaucrats, dilemmas arise because the
complexities of the individual case have to mesh with
the machinery of the state. Rather than being resolved
at the policy level, such problems reside with, and are
worked on by, individuals (the second half of Lipsky’s
title is Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services).
Although dilemmas are products of institutional
arrangements and constraints, it is the individual public
“Impossible jobs,” a concept taken from Hargrove
and Glidewell’s volume Impossible Jobs in Public
Management (1990), is an idea frequently discussed
by public administrators.  e framework has attracted
widespread use and remains popular, but it has
become overgeneralized (Maranto and Wolf 2012).
e contribution of the present article, based on an
analysis of multimethod empirical data, is to pro-
pose three theoretical extensions to the impossible
jobs framework. First, we dif‌f erentiate between jobs
and tasks (jobs can combine possible and impos-
sible tasks). Second, we give a clearer account of the
relationship between street-level jobs and impossible
jobs (some street-level bureaucrats face impossible
tasks). And third, we give a richer account of the con-
cept of a client base (sometimes “the” client base can
fracture, or grow very rapidly, and can change very
quickly from legitimate to illegitimate). Our context
is a three-year study of how police of‌f‌i cers in England
train for and confront riots.1
e article proceeds as follows: First, we review the
literature on impossible jobs. We then introduce the
Impossible Jobs or Impossible Tasks? Client Volatility
and Frontline Policing Practice in Urban Riots
Kevin Morrell
Graeme Currie
Warwick Business School, United Kingdom
Abstract: Various public administration jobs are described as “impossible,” meaning that they have an unpopular
or illegitimate client base, stakeholders have conf‌l icting values, and leaders and their agency’s mission are
continually questioned. Although this framework is widely used, it has also become overgeneralized.  e authors
propose three theoretical extensions to understanding impossible jobs based on f‌i ndings from a three-year multimethod
study of riot policing. First, a distinction can be drawn between impossible jobs and impossible tasks. Second, the
relationship between impossible jobs and street-level bureaucracy is clarif‌i ed; the case of riot police shows that some
street-level bureaucrats face impossible tasks.  ird, the authors show that the conceptualization of the client base
has been overly static—in some situations, the client base fractures, or grows rapidly, and legitimacy can change
in real time.
Practitioner Points
If agencies work with unpopular or illegitimate clients, stakeholders disagree on strategy, and the public
doubts professional authority and espoused mission, agency chiefs have “impossible jobs.”
Rarely, frontline employees face “impossible tasks”—riot police can directly af‌f ect client legitimacy and
stakeholder perceptions; these ef‌f ects can be amplif‌i ed by modern technology and “copycatting.
To manage crises ef‌f ectively, agencies need to consider real-time interactions between client legitimacy,
professional authority, and stakeholder perceptions of the agency mission.
To prepare more ef‌f ectively for crisis, agencies need to distinguish between dif‌f‌i cult tasks and
“impossible tasks.”

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