Skip to content

panel's content

Panel 11. Street level bureaucrats, Discretion and Citizen-State Relations: The Bureaucratic Encounter


  • Alberta Andreotti, University of Milan – Bicocca.
  • Talja Blokland, Humboldt University.


After the pandemic, the interest in the role of street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) in the implementation of public policies has significantly increased, also outside the American and Northern European contexts where it had gained prominence in the previous decades. The SLBs framework represents a specific lens through which to examine policy implementation. It highlights that implementation is neither a linear nor rational process. SLBs, through their actions, become co-decision-makers in public policies. They alter the meanings of policies through their doing, with varying degrees and levels of variability. The concept of SLBs, originally introduced by Lipsky (1980), has now expanded to encompass all workers employed in public or private companies who have received common training and perform tasks for the common good while having direct contact with citizens, and influence their well-being (e.g., social workers, police officers, firefighters, teachers, judges, nurses, etc.). Their professional tasks imply a discretionary space in which they exercise power: this space is not at all random, but patterns of discretionary actions can be identified.

This discretionary power is central to studies that adopt this perspective. Micro-level factors influencing discretionary power (such as values, norms, educational and cultural backgrounds) have been highlighted, as well as meso-level factors (the functioning of organizations with their constraints and resources, management control) and macro-level factors related to institutional arrangements. Recently, there have been efforts to integrate all three of these levels. However, relatively little attention has been given to the role of public, urban, and non-urban spaces in shaping discretionary practices, with notable exceptions such as the work of Auyero on Buenos Aires and other authors which he has reviewed who have discussed practices of discretionary power through ‘waiting’. We seek to understand:

  • What the role of ‘the public’ can be in citizen-state relations, and to what extent the introduction of digital space in encounters have changed these relations?
  • What can be said about mismatches between logics of SLBs working within different policy fields and institutional settings (e.g., educational institutions and other child-related institutions; social agents in preventive programs and police, active labour market policies and social assistance, etc.), and between citizens and SLBs? What can we learn across cases, and what differences and similarities may be found?
  • How urban institutions may ‘work’ differently in different parts of an urban site (intra-urban or inter-urban), how imaginations of place (including stigmatization but also gentrification) may affect their workings, and whether studying this may help us understand the spatiality of urban inequalities?

In this session, theoretical and empirical contributions are welcome. Contributions can adopt a comparative or case study approach to examine the role of SLBs and their discretionary practices in policy implementation in different contexts in the Global North and/or South, urban and non-urban settings, and different policy areas, highlighting the encounters and conflicts that arise in such implementation.

Centro de Estudios de Conflicto y Cohesión Social.

Diagonal Paraguay 257,
Torre 26, Oficina 1504
Santiago – RM

Los Navegantes 1963
Providencia – RM