Do tax officials use double standards in evaluating citizen‐clients? A policy‐capturing study among Dutch frontline tax officials

AuthorSandra Groeneveld,Nadine Raaphorst,Steven Van de Walle
Date01 March 2018
Published date01 March 2018
Do tax officials use double standards in evaluating
citizen-clients? A policy-capturing study among
Dutch frontline tax officials
Nadine Raaphorst
| Sandra Groeneveld
| Steven Van de Walle
Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs,
Leiden University, Den Haag, The Netherlands
Public Governance Institute, KU Leuven,
Leuven, Belgium
Nadine Raaphorst, Faculty of Governance and
Global Affairs, Leiden University, P.O. Box
13228, Den Haag 2501 EE, The Netherlands.
Funding information
Nederlandse Organisatie voor
Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, Grant/Award
number: 452-11-011; The Dutch Organization
for Scientific Research (NWO) (Vidi grant
no. 452-11-011)
In line with psychological and economic discrimination theories,
street-level bureaucracy studies show a direct effectof citizen char-
acteristics on officials'judgements, or show how street-level bureau-
crats employ stereotypicalreasoning in making decisions. Relying on
sociological double standards theory, this study hypothesizes that
citizen-clients' status characteristics influence officials' evaluations
not only directly, but also indirectly and more pervasively by
influencing the interpretation of other signals. By means of a policy-
capturing study amongDutch frontline tax officials, this study takes
a first step in testing double standardspropositions in the context of
officialcitizen encounters. The findings support only some hypoth-
eses, but indicate that citizen-clients' level of education could serve
as a moderating context affecting the interpretation of cues. The
article provides importanttheoretical and methodological guidelines
for future research on stereotypingat the front line.
Street-level bureaucrats typically have considerable leeway to make judgements about citizen-clients (Lipsky 1980).
Research on street-level bureaucrats, such as police officers or teachers, has shown how discretionary judgements
sometimes overlap with citizens' supposed belonging to certain social groups, such as someone's race (e.g., Epp
et al. 2014), social class (Harrits and Møller 2014), or gender (Johnson and Morgan 2013). It has been shown that,
due to a lack of information, time and other resources, street-level bureaucrats develop short-cuts such as stereo-
types to categorize clients (Lipsky 1980; Prottas 1979). In situations with only limited information and time pres-
sure, the matching of citizen characteristics to stereotypes gives officials information they would otherwise not
have (e.g., Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2003).
Within the public administration literature there is a lack of explanatory studies focusing on how cultural beliefs
about social groups play a role in the public encounter and affect the judgements of frontline officials (but see
Schram et al. 2009; Harrits and Møller 2014; Andersen and Guul 2016). This is particularly interesting given the fact
that frontline officials are encouraged to be flexible and to be responsive to citizens' situations when making deci-
sions (e.g., Rice 2017). In fact, interpersonal notions such as trust and collaboration have come to play an important
role in frontline decisions (Yang 2005; Bartels 2013). In such contexts, officials have more room for interpretation
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12374
134 © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2018;96:134153.
and leeway in using their own standards to assess who is trustworthy and who is not. Therefore, this flexibility
paves the way for stereotyped images and double standards to inform judgements.
The sociological status characteristics theory holds that in situations entailing interpersonal task situations,
where there is a distinction between failureand success, evaluators look at people's status characteristics to eval-
uate their likely behaviour and achievements (Berger et al. 1972). These characteristics are socially recognized attri-
butes on which people are perceived to differ, such as ethnicity, gender or education. Status characteristics are
associated with cultural beliefs of greater competence in those with more valued states of the characteristic
(Ridgeway 1991, p. 368). As a consequence, it is held, similar situations implying equal competences are evaluated
differently for lower status groups than for higher status groups. By testing the explanatory power of double stan-
dards theory using a policy-capturing design, this article sets out to examine how stereotyping at the front line may
be more indirect (i.e., also indirectly leading to unequal judgements) and pervasive (i.e., affecting the interpretation
of other signals) than has hitherto been studied within public administration research. This study thereby provides a
first step in testing the explanatory potential of double standards theory in a public administration context.
In what follows, we will discuss previous research on stereotyping in frontline work more broadly. We will sub-
sequently present our theoretical framework, describe the research setting and formulate hypotheses. Then we will
describe our policy-capturing design and discuss our findings.
The literature on stereotyping at the front line is diverse and entails different perspectives on stereotyping. Not-
withstanding the differences, most of these studies focus on direct ways of stereotyping, that is, how evaluations
are affected by stereotypes or are based on stereotypical reasoning.
In line with the economic theory of statistical discrimination, there are studies that assume that the use of ste-
reotypes is based on statistical knowledge or prior experience to reduce uncertainty (e.g., Harris 1999; Gambetta
and Hamill 2005). Studies show how service workers in general or officials within certain professions explicitly con-
struct types of clients that are inextricably linked to certain groupings in society. Stroshine et al. (2008), for example,
show how police officers find black people driving in dilapidated cars in white neighbourhoods suspicious. Within
such studies, the mechanism of discrimination studied is direct: cues lead people to distinguish between social cate-
gories regardless of any other relevant characteristics. Observational studies that point to the stereotypical reason-
ing employed by frontline workers in reaching decisions (e.g., Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2003; Dubois 2010)
also fall into this category, since they point to how differential evaluations of, for instance, deservingness overlap
with distinctions between social groups.
Within the street-level bureaucracy literature there are only some studies that focus on indirect mechanisms of
stereotyping. A study by Harrits and Møller (2014) shows how social workers' tendency to suggest interventions in
similar situations is different for low- and high-class citizens than for middle-class citizens. Drawing on the sociologi-
cal literature on normality and categorization, they find some evidence that the social distance between workers
and citizen-clients in interactions implicitly influences their judgements. Moreover, the experimental vignette study
by Schram et al. (2009) on case managers' decisions to impose sanctions shows that black welfare clients are more
likely to be punished than white welfare clients when rules have been violated. They test the Racial Classification
Model (RCM), a model they developed themselves, to explain how a client's race affects officials' evaluations of rule
violations. The RCM posits that when cues confirm negative racial stereotypes, this can provide expectancy confir-
mation, thereby reinforcing negative stereotypes in evaluators' minds. Thus, that study also tested and provided evi-
dence for an indirect mechanism of stereotyping.
Apart from these studies,there is little attention within the public administration literature to indirectmechanisms
of stereotyping. Our study builds on these studies by testing propositions of the double standards theory to explain
how stereotypes may also work as frames affecting officials' interpretation of similar evidence. Just like the RCM,

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