Working Within a System of Administrative Burden: How Street-Level Bureaucrats’ Role Perceptions Shape Access to the Promise of Higher Education

AuthorElizabeth Bell,Kylie Smith
Published date01 February 2022
Date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(2) 167 –211
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211027535
Working Within a
System of Administrative
Burden: How Street-
Level Bureaucrats’
Role Perceptions Shape
Access to the Promise
of Higher Education
Elizabeth Bell1 and Kylie Smith2
Utilizing a statewide survey and administrative data, we explore how state-
imposed burdens are translated by street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) into
frontline practices that may alleviate or exacerbate onerous experiences
of the administrative state. First, we find that SLBs’ role perceptions
shaped not only uses of discretionary power—as either a force of client
empowerment or disentitlement—but also program access. Second, we
find that the local agencies with the largest proportions of income-eligible
clients often had the least capacity for alleviating administrative burden,
suggesting decentralization may be a mechanism by which administrative
burden perpetuates structural inequality.
administrative burden, program access, street-level bureaucracy, role
perceptions, education policy
1Miami University, Oxford, OH, USA
2The University of Oklahoma, Norman, USA
Corresponding Author:
Elizabeth Bell, Department of Political Science, Miami University, 218 Harrison Hall, Oxford,
OH 45056, USA.
1027535AAS0010.1177/00953997211027535Administration & SocietyBell and Smith
168 Administration & Society 54(2)
Emerging public administration scholarship has called attention to the delete-
rious impacts of administrative burden in client–state interactions (Moynihan
et al., 2015). These studies demonstrate that administrative burden negatively
affects program access and client well-being, with disadvantaged clientele
facing the most challenges in overcoming costly encounters with government
(Christensen et al., 2020; Hattke et al., 2020; Heinrich, 2016; Heinrich &
Brill, 2015; Herd et al., 2013; Masood & Nisar, 2021; Moynihan et al., 2015;
Moynihan & Herd, 2010; Nisar, 2017). Many of these studies examine how
changes in state or federal policy impact aggregated measures of client access
to public programs—either at the state or federal level (e.g., Bhargava &
Manoli, 2015; Deshpande & Li, 2019; Gray et al., 2019). By focusing pre-
dominantly on aggregated take-up rates, many of these studies have neglected
the potential for variation across local agencies in the impact of administra-
tive burdens on client access.
In many policy areas where administrative burdens are the most severe—
such as health care, immigration, and education—implementation is decen-
tralized, making local agencies, as well as frontline staff, an essential level of
analysis to consider in the literature (Herd & Moynihan, 2018; Moynihan
et al., 2015). By extending the lens of administrative burden to the front lines
of government, scholars can explore the potential for variation in the effects
of administrative burden on program access across local agencies, where
crucial public–state interactions occur. In addition, exploring variations in
administrative burden and outcomes at the local level is crucial because each
experience of administrative burden is ultimately a function of the interaction
between state and federal policy and the discretionary decisions of street-
level bureaucrats (SLBs)—the empowered citizen-agents on the front lines of
government who translate state and federal policies into tangible distribu-
tions of benefits and burdens (Lipsky, 2010; Maynard-Moody & Musheno,
2003). Given that SLBs vary widely in their values and beliefs and uses of
discretionary power (Brodkin & Majmundar, 2010; Jilke et al., 2018;
Tummers et al., 2015; Watkins-Hayes, 2011), we predict that SLBs play a
role in alleviating or exacerbating administrative burden for clients trying to
access governmental benefits. Experiences interacting with SLBs, in their
varied approaches to applying administrative burden policies, may even have
consequences for program access in the local agency.
In this study, we draw connections across administrative burden and
street-level bureaucracy literature to test the following research questions:
Research Question 1: Within a policy regime of administrative burden,
how do SLBs’ role perceptions shape uses of discretionary power as a
force for client empowerment or a force for disentitlement?
Bell and Smith 169
Research Question 2: Within a policy regime of administrative burden,
how do SLBs’ role perceptions shape program access at the local level?
We take a different approach from previous studies by holding administrative
burden constant, focusing instead on how the variation in SLBs’ values and
beliefs, and specifically role perceptions, affects the implementation of
administrative burden policies and resulting levels of client access across
local agencies. Drawing on street-level bureaucracy research, we formulate a
series of hypotheses regarding the influence of SLBs’ role perceptions in
shaping the use of discretionary power and client access to Oklahoma’s
Promise (OKP)—a state means-tested financial aid program that requires stu-
dents to overcome significant administrative burden in the application pro-
cess. To test these hypotheses, we utilize unique statewide survey data and
administrative data, as well as open-ended survey responses and supplemen-
tary in-depth qualitative interviews with SLBs to descriptively enrich our
quantitative findings and identify potential themes as areas for future research.
Our analysis reveals that SLBs’ role perceptions shape whether they use
discretion to alleviate or exacerbate administrative burden for clients.
Accordingly, we find that role perceptions predict the level of client access in
the local agency. However, in schools situated within highly impoverished
communities, SLBs had no influence on program access, which we expected
given the structural deficiencies, goal misalignment, and lack of resources in
under-resourced schools (Lavee & Strier, 2019; Perna & Thomas, 2009;
Tummers et al., 2015). Therefore, we find that the interaction between SLBs’
role perceptions and organizational capacity moderates the influence of state-
imposed administrative burdens on local levels of client access. Together,
these findings take a step toward better understanding how SLBs’ role per-
ceptions impact street-level discretion and client access in policy regimes of
administrative burden.
This study builds on existing literature by making two main contribu-
tions. First, we shed light on one of the areas that Moynihan et al. (2015)
highlight for future research: the role of frontline workers in influencing the
policy environments of administrative burden. We draw from the large body
of research exploring the importance of SLBs as conduits between clients
and federal/state/local program access, and combine these insights with the
emerging discussions of administrative burden. Leveraging these two litera-
tures, we demonstrate the importance of variation in administrative capacity
and SLBs’ role perceptions for the use of discretionary power and client
outcomes at the local level. Second, we build upon street-level bureaucracy
literature by investigating the interactions between role perceptions and how
these interactions affect a key client outcome—program access. While

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