Transferring emotional capital as coerced discretion: Street‐level bureaucrats reconciling structural deficiencies

AuthorEinat Lavee,Roni Strier
Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Transferring emotional capital as coerced
discretion: Street-level bureaucrats reconciling
structural deficiencies
Einat Lavee
| Roni Strier
Department of Human Services, University
of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
School of Social Work, University of Haifa,
Haifa, Israel
Einat Lavee, Department of Human Services,
University of Haifa, Abba Hushi Avenue, Haifa
3498837, Israel.
The discretion of street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) plays a key
role in policy implementation. This study offers a new per-
spective on the meaning of discretion under social policy
reforms, which created new structural deficiencies in the
work of SLBs and have raised expectations of policy imple-
mentation without offering sufficient policy responses.
Under such conditions, the discretion of SLBs should be
understood as coerced, more so than as a positive element
of freedom and choice. As such, SLBs are forced to employ
informal practices and provide alternative resources for
their clients. Findings indicate a transference of emotional
resources from SLBs to clients, aimed at achieving policy
outcomes of economically independent citizens, paradoxi-
cally accompanied by an awareness of powerful barriers to
such conversion. The study contributes both to the under-
standing of discretion in policy implementation, in the con-
text of an expanding public service gap, and to theories of
emotion manifestation in public administration.
Street-level workers are a diverse group who share common experiences and raise common concerns. They are on
the front lines of governing, yet they are furthest from the centres of power and closest to citizens (Maynard-Moody
and Musheno 2000). Scholars have widely discussed the importance of discretion in the work of SLBs (i.e., Hill and
Hupe 2009; Lipsky 2010; Maynard-Moody and Portillo 2010; Evans 2016). In this context, discretion has been
defined as a fundamental feature of social provision (Brodkin 2007). Usually it is understood as a matter of freedom
Received: 20 September 2018 Revised: 6 February 2019 Accepted: 27 March 2019
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12598
910 © 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2019;
or choice that a worker can exercise in a specific context (Evans 2013). According to Lipsky (2010), discretion is nec-
essary to cope with uncertainties and work pressures.
The significance of discretion in SLBswork increased with the rise of the New Public Management (NPM) wave
of reforms. Among other core characteristics of these reforms, adopted from private sector management methods,
are performance management and an outcome-based orientation (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011; Cohen 2016). Focus-
ing mainly on the bottom lineof policy implementation, policy-makers and higher-level officials are less concerned
with the ways in which policy work is conducted, as long as performance benchmarks are met. From this perspective,
the discretion of lower-level organizations and workers is an inherent feature of policy implementation (Brodkin
2011; Evans 2016). The underlying assumption is that, if performance indicators provide a bottom line, then one can
leave it to street-level organizations and workers to determine how best to do policy work (Brodkin 2011).
The characteristics of the NPM wave of reforms are strongly connected to other macro-level welfare reforms in
many Western countries. The core principles characterizing these reforms include freedom of markets, individualism
and restricted state action (Harvey 2005; Maman and Rosenhek 2008). These reforms have profoundly transformed
the nature of the welfare state, relations between the state and its citizens, and, consequently, the provision of pub-
lic services (Benish 2012). Under the convergence of NPM and reforms in social policy, the work environment of
SLBs has changed profoundly: alongside a focus on economic values, such as efficiency and client choice (Tummers
et al. 2012), manpower and resources to achieve desired outcomes have been sharply reduced (Brodkin 2011;
Abramovitz 2012). Acknowledging the new environment, which in many cases broadens the public service gap
(Hupe and Buffat 2014), scholars are called upon to better understand the interferences under New Public Manage-
ment reforms and the current increased austerity measures(Hupe and Van der Krogt 2013, pp. 6162).
Much of the literature focuses on how street-level workers respond to the demands arising from NPM,
suggesting their response be understood as a normative aspect of freedom and choice (e.g., Lipsky 2010; Brodkin
2011; Evans 2013; Tummers and Bekkers 2014). However, despite these important studies, we still miss a nuanced
conceptualization of how new structural deficiencies created by NPM demands and social policy reforms shape the
interactions of SLBs with clients, as well as what practices they employ to implement policy and deliver service to
Going beyond a description of the routine of workerspractices, the study explains the consequences of those
practices for citizens and street-level workers alike. The analytical questions are: What is the nature of SLBsdiscre-
tion under these structural conditions? What are the outcomes of SLBsdiscretion for policy implementation? We
hypothesize that these structural deficiencies are forcing SLBs to employ informal practices and to provide alterna-
tive resources for citizens/clients. The current study thus aims to expand the understanding of SLBsdiscretion in
public services, suggesting that, under conditions of insufficient policy response, the discretion of SLBs should be
understood as a necessitywhat we call coerced discretion. Given the structural convergence described, this study
explores the daily implementation practices of SLBs in current public services, focusing on the discretionary element
of their job.
Israeli social workers working in public services constitute a particularly instructive case for examining relations
between macro-level institutional factors and the micro-level daily manoeuvring of SLBs within the context of
coerced discretion. Over the last few decades, Israel has gradually adopted market-oriented neoliberal economic pol-
icies. This trend has led to serious retrenchment in social expenditures and a restructuring of welfare (Maman and
Rosenhek 2008), which in turn has increased poverty rates. At the same time, public services in Israel, particularly
public social services, have adopted NPM values and practices (Benish 2012).
To explore the notion of coerced discretion and SLBs manoeuvring between the need to be responsive to the
needs of citizens and the public policy, this study examines street-level workersuse of emotions. In this context, the
theory of emotional capital serves as a framework for conceptualizing the meaning of coerced discretion. Although
discretion could result in more distance between SLBs and citizens (Tummers et al. 2015), in many cases SLBs have
been shown to be working hard to meet clientsneeds and enhance their welfare and well-being (e.g., Dubois 2010;
Evans 2013). While SLBs adopt the narrative of citizen agentsin many professional locations (Maynard-Moody and

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