Street‐level bureaucrats, rule‐following and tenure: How assessment tools are used at the front line of the public sector

AuthorAnahita Assadi,Martin Lundin
Date01 March 2018
Published date01 March 2018
Street-level bureaucrats, rule-following and
tenure: How assessment tools are used at the
front line of the public sector
Anahita Assadi
| Martin Lundin
Swedish National Agency for Education,
Skolverket, Stockholm, Sweden
Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and
Education Policy (IFAU), Uppsala, Sweden
Martin Lundin, Institute for Evaluation of
Labour Market and Education Policy (IFAU),
Kyrkogårdsgatan 6, Uppsala, Box
513, Sweden.
Studies on street-level bureaucracy examine actions of frontline
workers within the public sector. In this literature, there is a lack
of evidence on how job tenure affects how frontline workers
respond to formal steering. We contribute to prior research by
studying the nationwide introduction of an assessment support
tool to be used by caseworkers to assess clientsneeds under the
Swedish active labour market policy. We examine the potential
effects of tenure on how caseworkers use this tool. The empirical
analysis is based on quantitative and qualitative data. We show
that as tenure increases, street-level bureaucrats, especially male
caseworkers, tend to act in accordance with policy signals to a
lesser extent. The qualitative analysis shows that this pattern can
partly be explained by the fact that increasing experience with
meeting clients face to face increases caseworkersperceived con-
fidence and skills.
Street-level bureaucrats are public employees, such as social workers, teachers and police officers, who directly
interact with citizens and have considerable discretion in the execution of their work. In the wake of the seminal
work by Michael Lipsky (1980), many scholars have argued that frontline staff play a key role in shaping policy out-
puts (Brehm and Gates 1997; Meyers and Vorsanger 2003; May and Winter 2009; van Loon and Jakobsen 2017).
Latitude in interpreting rules, vague monitoring, limited resources and disparate demands for their services imply
that street-level workers can affect the delivery of public policy to a considerable extent.
The literature on street-level bureaucracy highlights the perennial tension between governance and discretion.
Generally, policy should be implemented in accordance with the intentions of decision-makers who have been
elected or appointed according to democratic procedures (Keiser and Soss 1998; Meyers and Vorsanger 2003; Sten-
söta 2012). At the same time, professional expertise is necessary for achieving policy goals. Street-level workers
have specific knowledge regarding local conditions, making their judgements most valuable. It could also be argued
that frontline workers support democracy by increasing local influence, making it possible for those most affected
by decisions to voice their opinions, and by generating legitimacy and responsiveness (Meyers and Vorsanger 2003).
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12386
154 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2018;96:154170.
Moreover, some scholars claim that public organizations are typically more diverse than politicians and political
parties, and that they therefore are more likely to be truerepresentatives of the public interest (Friedrich 1940).
In 2012, the Swedish Public Employment Services (PES, Arbetsförmedlingen) introduced the computer-based
Assessment Support Tool (AST), a statistical profiling tool to be used by PES caseworkers when meeting clients who
want to register as job-seekers. This tool draws attention to the tension between steering and discretion. The AST
consists of a number of questions regarding factors known to affect the risk of long-term unemployment, forexam-
ple, a client's unemployment history. Caseworkers should interview their new clients using the questions provided
by the AST. Based on the information given, the tool estimates the client's risk of long-term unemployment and
generates a recommendation on whether early and enhanced measures in support of the job-seeker are suitable.
Caseworkers are instructed to carefully consider the recommendation, but the guidelines also imply that frontline
staff should make use of their professional expertise. PES officers are therefore not restricted by the outcome,
although they are required to explain their decision in writing if the recommendation is disregarded. Recently, simi-
lar tools have been introduced in several countries and within several policy areas (e.g., White et al. 2009; Gilling-
ham and Humphreys 2010; van Berkel and van der Aa 2012). These tools have the potential to work as a steering
mechanism, but it is obvious that they can interfere with caseworkersprofessionalism.
In this article, we examine how the AST is utilized by PES caseworkers in Sweden. The intention is to deepen
our understanding of how street-level workers respond to this kind of steering. The research question of interest is
determining if and how years of experience
being a frontline worker changes behaviour: How is experience related
to rule-boundedness? Tenure is sometimes considered in research on street-level bureaucracy, and occasionally ten-
ure is included as a control variable when other factors are examined (e.g., Riccucci et al. 2004; Stensöta 2012;
Zhang and Musheno 2017). However, empirical research is rather limited (but see Oberfield 2010, 2012; LaFrance
and Day 2013).
It has been argued that as frontline workers get more experienced, they develop certain modes of conduct
(Lipsky 1980; Riccucci 2005). Accordingly, there are reasons to believe that time at work makes a difference.
Increased tenure can make the individual more inclined to rely on her or his own judgement, rather than on formal
steering, for at least three reasons: first, skills and confidence are likely to increase as tenure increase. Second,
power and job security are likely to be strengthened as workers become more experienced. Third, ideas and norms
of appropriate modes of conduct are likely to be more deeply internalized among experienced individuals. However,
other theories suggest that bureaucratsattitudes towards rule-following do not change that much over time
(Oberfield 2010, 2012), or that bureaucrats tend to become more rule-bound over time (Merton 1940). Thus, differ-
ent theories generate different predictions. This calls for empirical analysis.
We employ a research design mainly based on a quantitative approach: a web survey with around 1,500 PES
caseworkers is used to analyse the relationship between tenure and the use of the profiling tool. With these data,
we can provide an overall and generalizable description of how the AST is used and whether this is related to expe-
rience. A qualitative analysis complements the statistical analysis: in-depth interviews with 23 caseworkers and
seven local managers provide insights into the underlying mechanisms. In comparison to the quantitative study, the
qualitative part gives us more information about how the tool is used and why it is used in certain ways. Thus, we
are able to examine the validity of the statistical analysis and contribute with a more elaborated understanding of
the general pattern.
The statistical analysis demonstrates that tenure relates to practices: less experienced caseworkers rely on the
AST to a greater extent than those with more experience. That is, increased tenure decreases rule-boundedness.
We cannot make a sharp separation between different mechanisms explaining this relationship. However, the quali-
tative analysis indicates that one important mechanism is that through meeting more and more clients, frontline
workers become more confident in their ability to assess the needs of clients and consequently see less need for
using the profiling tool. This suggests that increased human capital and self-confidence are key mechanisms; tenure
Experience and (job) tenure are used synonymously throughout the article.

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