Social Services in Ethnically Mixed Cities: Street-Level Bureaucracy at the Crossroads of Ethno-National Conflict

Published date01 September 2021
Date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2021, Vol. 53(8) 1203 –1231
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0095399721996325
Social Services in
Ethnically Mixed Cities:
Street-Level Bureaucracy
at the Crossroads of
Ethno-National Conflict
Roni Strier1, Hisham M. Abu-Rayya1,2,
and Tamar Shwartz-Ziv1
There is a paucity of research examining street-level bureaucracy in cities
affected by ongoing ethnopolitical conflict. This study addresses this limitation
by exploring the work of social workers in the public services of mixed cities
in Israel. It shows the interconnection between ambiguous institutional
policies, varying workers’ views of the role of social services, and changing
discretion patterns. Findings also suggest that episodes of conflict escalation
intensify staff ethnic sectarianism, as well as increase workers’ own ethnic
biases, which affect the ways in which they act as a liaison between the
welfare system and citizens through their use of discretion.
street-level bureaucracy, discretion, public services, political conflict,
mixed cities
This study investigates the understudied topic of street-level bureaucracy
in the context of ongoing severe ethnopolitical conflict. Based on exten-
sive qualitative research involving 80 public-sector social workers in three
1University of Haifa, Israel
2La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Roni Strier, School of Social Work, University of Haifa, Haifa 3498838, Israel.
996325AASXXX10.1177/0095399721996325Administration & SocietyStrier et al.
1204 Administration & Society 53(8)
ethnically mixed cities in Israel, it examines social workers’ practices as
street-level bureaucrats, the impact of political conflict on their routines,
the way these workers construe their role, and their discretion patterns in
these complex settings.
Social Workers as Street-Level Bureaucrats
The literature portrays public-sector social workers as classic examples of
street-level bureaucrats (Strier et al., 2020; Lavee et al., 2018; Lipsky, 1980;
Nothdurfter & Hermans, 2018). These professionals regulate recipients’
access to welfare programs, services, and benefits in the context of highly
bureaucratic and hierarchical organizational cultures (Evans, 2010a). Most
specifically, as noted by Lipsky (1980), the ways in which social workers
manage complexity, the strategies they use to cope with uncertainty, the rou-
tines they establish to navigate gray zones of policy, and the mechanisms
they create to reconcile professionalism with practice all become the poli-
cies they actually carry out (Lipsky, 1980). Such tensions occur in organiza-
tional settings where resources are constantly insufficient; goals are
ambiguous, changing, and usually unattainable; and clients’ needs always
exceed the unstable supply of services (Ellis, 2007). Discretion is a key con-
cept in the street-level bureaucracy approach, and hence a main line of
research has examined what influences frontline workers’ decision making
and choice of strategies (Moore, 1987). The street-level worker’s personal
values, emotions, ethnic and socioeconomic background, and professional-
ism; the organizational setting; and the broader sociopolitical environment
have all been suggested as important factors in shaping their choices (Cohen,
2018; Hupe & Hill, 2007; Lavee et al., 2018; Maynard-Moody & Musheno,
2003; Nothdurfter & Hermans, 2018; Watkins-Hayes, 2011). Evans (2010a,
2010b) argues that this literature ignores the important role of professional
discretion in the field of social work. To deliver more just, trustworthy,
transparent, and accountable public social services, managers and frontline
workers need to exercise not only high levels of professionalism—as embod-
ied in continuous training, specialization, implementation of evidence-based
practices, and increasing awareness of diversity and inequalities—but also
discretion (Evans, 2010a).
Research shows that in some cases, institutional logics supply the moral
categories and legitimate practices that play a key role in shaping the quality
of services provided to vulnerable client groups (Garrow & Grusky, 2013).
The ambiguous milieu of the public social welfare sphere in which programs
may be determined by changing welfare politics confronts both managers
and frontline social workers with serious ethical and practical dilemmas

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