Neither the Magic Bullet Nor the Big Bad Wolf: A Systematic Review of Frontline Judges’ Attitudes and Coping Regarding Managerialization

Published date01 May 2023
AuthorÉmilien Colaux,Nathalie Schiffino,Stéphane Moyson
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(5) 921 –952
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997231157748
Neither the Magic
Bullet Nor the Big Bad
Wolf: A Systematic
Review of Frontline
Judges’ Attitudes and
Coping Regarding
Émilien Colaux1, Nathalie Schiffino1,
and Stéphane Moyson1
How do frontline judges perceive managerial reforms, and how do they
cope with them? We relied on concepts from street-level bureaucracy to
systematically review the effects of managerial techniques on frontline judges
in 35 studies. We find that judges’ attitudes toward managerialization are
more heterogeneous than might be anticipated. Beyond facing an increasing
caseload, judges are pressed to reduce treatment times and costs as well as
to play managerial roles. Judges’ mechanisms to cope with pressures include
rationing, prioritizing, and routinizing. While managerialization is a solution
to the increasing caseload, it might well affect the quality of justice.
coping mechanism, discretion, frontline judge, new public management,
street-level bureaucracy, systematic review
1Université catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain), Mons, Belgium
Corresponding Author:
Émilien Colaux, Institut de Sciences Politiques Louvain-Europe (ISPOLE), Université
catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain), Chaussée de Binche, 151 Box M1.01.01, Mons 7000,
1157748AAS0010.1177/00953997231157748Administration & SocietyColaux et al.
922 Administration & Society 55(5)
Since the 1980s, the managerialization of many public services, that is, the
introduction of management techniques inspired by the private sector in the
public sector, has been ongoing around the world. This trend has reached the
judicial sector, although later most of the time. While managerialization was
initially designed to increase the efficiency and efficacy of public administra-
tions and policies in the context of budget cuts, it has been increasingly sus-
pected to miss its objectives, among other things, because it places multiple
constraints on frontline public officials—for example, increased controls—
without necessarily improving the quality or decreasing the costs of the pub-
lic service they deliver. Scientific research suggests that this applies, currently,
to the work of frontline judges, that is, those who interact with various citi-
zens and handle a heavy caseload on a daily basis, most generally in lower
courts. However, this research is less prolix and more scattered than the
mainstream literature on managerialization. How do frontline judges per-
ceive managerial reforms? What pressures actually result from these reforms?
How do frontline judges concretely cope with these pressures? The purpose
of this article is to address these questions on the basis of a systematic review
of political and social science. We find that while many suspicions regarding
managerialization are confirmed from the perspective of frontline judges’
attitudes and behaviors, there are also reasons to believe that some dimen-
sions and effects of managerialization effectively contribute to preserving
public service while addressing the judicialization of society, which increases
For many years, public policy and administration research has been domi-
nated by top-down approaches. In the early 1980s, many researchers ques-
tioned the preponderance of this approach and decided to adopt bottom-up
perspectives (Sabatier, 1986). In this context, Lipsky (1980/2010) demon-
strated and theorized the influence that “street-level bureaucrats” can exert
on public policies. Street-level bureaucrats are public officials who directly
interact with various citizens-clients on a daily basis and hold, to the extent
that they respect the rules, some discretionary power in making administra-
tive decisions for citizens-clients, which shapes public policy on the ground
(Evans, 2011; Hupe & Hill, 2007; Hupe et al., 2015).
In recent decades, frontline agents have faced changing managerial mod-
els and, in turn, increasing organizational pressures. The working conditions
of public officials have been affected, among other factors, by the principles
and practices of New Public Management (NPM) (Brodkin, 2011). The logic
of governance by performance has major implications for the way in which
street-level public agents carry out their tasks (Jacobsson et al., 2021):
Colaux et al. 923
increased work standardization generates tension with the autonomy and dis-
cretion of street-level bureaucrats (Brodkin, 2011) and affects their personal
relationships with citizens-clients (Mik-Meyer, 2018). Performance assess-
ments and increased attention to agents’ accountability (Brodkin, 2012) lead
to informal practices meant to preserve their work conditions (e.g., bypassing
lengthy controls) or the public service delivered to citizens-clients (Brodkin,
2011). Street-level bureaucrats defend their professional identity and values
in the face of managerial principles and changes (Evans, 2011; Hendrikx,
In this article, we focus on a specific category of street-level bureaucrats:
frontline judges, that is, those dispensing justice to many citizens on a daily
basis, most generally at the lowest levels of jurisdiction. These judges can
cover various matters (family, traffic, neighborhood disputes, youth, etc.) and
typically deal with the most common disputes. Despite various legal studies
about the spread of NPM in the justice sector (Bouhon & Pironnet, 2017;
Nachtergaele & Piraux, 2017; Vigour, 2017), the way in which judges con-
cretely deal with new managerial rationalities has been addressed mostly
implicitly. Moreover, street-level approaches to judges and their practices
remain quite rare in public administration research, although the relevance of
this approach has been supported by Lipsky (1980/2010) and reiterated by
some recent studies (e.g., Biland & Steinmetz, 2017; Dallara & Lacchei,
How do frontline judges perceive managerial reforms, and how do they
cope in practice with the pressures that these managerial reforms bring about?
To address this research question, we present the results of a systematic
review of peer-reviewed articles in social and political science based on the
Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses
approach (PRISMA: Moher et al., 2009). In doing so, theoretically, we test
the often stated but rarely substantiated critique related to the (negative)
effects of managerialization on street-level public services (Brodkin, 2011) in
the judicial sector. Empirically, we illuminate the relations between different
dimensions of judiciary management and the attitudes and behaviors they do
or do not trigger among frontline judges. In turn, we provide some perspec-
tive on the concrete impact of NPM on the delivery of public service in the
judicial sector.
After an overview of the theoretical perspectives of the analysis as well as
a presentation of the methods and scope of the literature review, the results
focus on the influence of judiciary management on frontline judges. We start
with judges’ attitudes toward the evolution of judiciary management. Then,
we examine the pressures resulting from these managerial evolutions that

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