Street-Level Bureaucrats in a Catch-All Bureaucracy

AuthorMargo Trappenburg,Thomas Kampen,Evelien Tonkens
Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(10) 2021 –2047
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997221104679
Street-Level Bureaucrats
in a Catch-All
Margo Trappenburg1,2 , Thomas Kampen2,
and Evelien Tonkens2
Since 2015 Dutch street-level bureaucrats have ample discretionary
space to determine how to help clients. Simultaneously, resources
were reduced. According to Zacka SLBs should avoid three pathological
positions: indifference, caregiving, and enforcing. At the individual level SLBs
supposedly accomplish that by a gymnastics of the self. We observed SLBs.
They avoided the pathological positions by (1) reframing the reigning policy
for clients (enforcing caringly) and (2) managing clients’ self-image, bolstering
their confidence, or tempering their expectations (caring forcefully). SLBs
practice a gymnastics of the client alongside a gymnastics of the self. SLBs
thus make the reigning policy palatable for clients.
street-level bureaucrats, catch-all bureaucracy, Zacka, decentralization, the
In 2015 the delivery of welfare services in the Netherlands was decentralized
to the local level. Youth care, care for people with disabilities and psychiatric
problems, long term non-residential care for frail elderly, welfare policy for
1Utrecht University School of Governance, The Netherlands
2University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Margo Trappenburg, Utrecht University School of Governance, Bijlhouwerstraat 6, 3511 ZC
Utrecht, The Netherlands.
1104679AAS0010.1177/00953997221104679Administration & SocietyTrappenburg et al.
2022 Administration & Society 54(10)
the long-term unemployed, and sheltered work for people with disabilities,
all became the responsibility of municipalities. This decentralization went
hand in hand with a drastic budget cut of 20% on average (De Rijk, 2018; Van
Nijendaal, 2014).
The implementation of these significant policy changes is done by street-
level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 1980) working together in “integrated neighbor-
hood teams.” Street-level bureaucrats (from now on: SLBs) are public
employees who interact directly with citizens and have substantial discretion
in the execution of their work (Lipsky, 1980; Weatherley & Lipsky, 1977, p.
3). When Lipsky wrote his seminal book in 1980 he observed a tendency to
reduce SLBs’ discretionary space, but he did not think this was desirable or
even feasible. The nature of SLB work was such that it could not be reduced
to programmatic formats (Lipsky, 1980, p. 15). Nor should it be divided into
specialized packages, as this would lead to SLBs who would only see seg-
ments of their product and would not be confronted with the full outcomes of
their decisions (Lipsky, 1980, p. 77).
Yet in the 1980s policy-makers were inclined to disregard this advice and
introduce ways and means to monitor and direct their SLBs. Under the ban-
ner of New Public Management (Hood, 1991), policy-makers decreased
SLBs’ discretionary space and urged for specialization in the name of exper-
tise and efficiency, as we will explain in Section 2.
Recently, however, the tide has changed once more, away from specializa-
tion and toward integration and wider SLB discretion. Present-day SLBs (or
at least the ones that we study in this article) operate in what is referred to as
a catch-all bureaucracy, an institution charachterized by wide leeway on the
one hand and tight budgets on the other. Watkins-Hayes (2009) defines a
catch-all bureaucracy as “an institution whose work is intimately tied to
responding to a variety of individual- and family-level issues and concerns
that are directly or indirectly related to severe economic and social disadvan-
tage” (p. 13). In a catch-all bureaucracy, SLBs resist specialization and frag-
mentation; they have a broad range of integrated tasks for the same clients,
ranging from support with finding work and health care to dealing with debts,
and problems with parenting.
SLBs working in the US agencies tasked with assisting the poor in the first
decade of the 21st century that Watkins-Hayes (2009) studied resemble those
working in the Dutch neighborhood teams we studied. Both the American
and the Dutch SLBs have been granted large discretionary space, much more
than they used to have in previous decades. Watkins-Hayes (2009) observed
that her SLBs were subject to “seemingly contradictory impulses of surveil-
lance and support” (p. 13), as the enlarged discretionary space came along
with budget cuts; SLBs were supposed to meet their clients’ needs as they

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