Revisiting Lipsky’s street level bureaucracy

One great thing about marking is its ability to release what Dr Jorge Cham (author of calls the ‘Power of Procrastination’. Last week these powerful and creative forces prompted me to check whether there were any ‘You Tubes’ of Professor Michael Lipsky’s classic work on street level bureaucracy. I struck gold with the following short summary of his work introduced by the author and produced by the University of Sydney:

In our eBook we argue that theory (very simply: a system of ideas constructed to explain phenomena) is central to research, but in our experience EH professionals are not very engaged with theoretical explanations of their work. We partly put this down to our pre-dominant practical/problem solving culture and lack of education in the theories of environmental health practice, but this is where Lipsky comes in.

He developed his theory during the 1970s when the competence of poorly resourced American front line public services was being called into question (sounds familiar?) by reviewing a vast empirical literature on front line public officials, including American EHPs. Lipsky argues that public policy is not best understood as the product of governments or high ranking policy officials (the ‘top-downers’) but is instead the product of the crowded offices and daily encounters of front line workers like EH professionals (the ‘bottom uppers’). Here ‘the decisions of street-level bureaucrats, the routines they establish, and the devices they invent to cope with uncertainties and work pressures, effectively become the public policies they carry out’ (Lipsky, 1980:xii).

This happens because the uncertainties characteristic of their work give street-level bureaucrats enormous power over service users and considerable autonomy from their employers. But this power is set against the dilemmas of being at the sharp end of resource allocation where demand far exceeds supply. Front line workers therefore find themselves making decisions in circumstances not of their own choosing and devise strategies to protect their working environment. For example they make decisions back in their private offices or mechanically ‘process’ clients into categories, whilst reserving the treatment they’d ideally like to give all towards those clients more likely to succeed.    

You might consider this justification for greater controls on the discretion of front line workers, but Lipsky is bleak about its effectiveness amidst workplaces with high staff turnover where performance is difficult to measure and greater supervision can be counterproductive. Clients, particularly the most vulnerable, are also relatively powerless to hold street-level bureaucrats to account, whilst legal systems can be poorly equipped for discretionary decision making. Professional organizations also don’t escape Lipsky’s criticism with their ‘careerist’ tendencies and reluctance to hold fellow professionals to account.

Published research has mentioned the relevance of street-level bureaucracy for describing the work of UK EHPs (e.g. Fairman and Yapp, 2005 – not open access) but it saddens me that, 33 years after publication, Lipsky’s work remains largely untapped by EH professionals. Getting to the truth could be politically tricky, but if we want to understand more about how we do what we do then I commend Lipsky’s theory to all EH professionals.

With best wishes, Rob


Fairman, R. and Yapp, C. (2005) Enforced self-regulation, prescription, and conceptions of compliance within small businesses: the impact of enforcement Law and Policy Vol. 27 (4) pp. 491 – 519

Lipsky, M. (1980) Street Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services Russell Sage Foundation, USA


2 thoughts on “Revisiting Lipsky’s street level bureaucracy

  1. Rob
    Thank you for that, a thought-provoking post. I’d not come across Lipsky’s work before, but I shall definitely include it in my next professional development event because it gets to the heart of the success of policy development and the design of interventions.

  2. You’re very welcome Patrick.

    For those interested in reading more about Lipsky’s work before investing in his classic book, the following paper offers a very readable critique of his argument and explores further the accountability of street level bureaucrats. Further, it’s available for free (hurrah!) thanks to the University of Brighton’s eprints service:

    Hupe, P. and Hill, M. (2007) Street-level bureaucracy and public accountability Public Administration, Vol. 85 (2) pp. 279-299

    Download via:

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