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Street-level bureaucracy of the 21st century

Research about street-level bureaucracy was jump started in the 1980s by Lipsky with his seminal book on Street-level bureaucracy. Street-level bureaucracy has become central to our field since. However, since then societal and technical developments have altered the ways in which public services are delivered, resulting in different dilemmas and increasingly complex value tensions at the frontline of policymaking. Moreover, there has been little attention to how street-level bureaucracy research has evolved since Lipsky (1980). Over the past decade, there has been a wave of scholars with a renewed interest in what happens at the frontline of bureaucracies and why. This is evident in the sheer number of (inter)national scholars who work on and publish about frontline topics. These scholars, however, are scattered across departments and various subdisciplines of public administration.

Therefore, our objectives are:

  1. Bringing together junior and senior researchers who work on core themes in street- level bureaucracy
  2. Learning from each other by creating a space for sharing, discussing, generating, and reflecting on new insights and methods (both qualitative and quantitative).
  3. Realizing collaborations between junior and senior researchers in various subdisciplines of public administration in, for example, joint publications, research projects, and panels at international


Together, these objectives allow us to contribute to the state-of-the-art in street-level bureaucracy research, ensuring that research on frontline topics will continue to thrive.

Street-level bureaucrats such as police officers, nurses, inspectors, teachers and social workers play an important role in determining what, how and to whom public services are delivered. They must make these decisions while facing limited resources, juxtaposing different (and often conflicting) values, and operating in complex and changing environments. These environments are increasingly interorganizational and interdisciplinary in nature. They also encompass ongoing developments such as digitalization, citizen co- production, regulatory pressure, and responsive lawmaking that can put conflictual demands on street-level bureaucrats.

Our research focus is on understanding the impact of those environments on (1) decision- making of street-level professionals as well as on (2) how citizen-clients are evaluated and treated.

This focus is relevant because everyday examples show us that the pressure put on and decisions of street-level bureaucrats have real life and sometimes far-reaching implications for citizens. To illustrate, the Dutch childcare benefits scandal has led to mandatory payback of those benefits by about 26.000 parents and, thus, impacted 70.000 children. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the importance of retaining and supporting ‘crucial professions’ such as healthcare staff, police officers, and teachers for the continuation of public services.

We make three important research contributions:

  1. We add to existing NIG colloquia and panels because the research scope of our colloquium transcends the chiefly micro-level focus on frontline decision-making and behavior by exploring in addition the meso and macro contexts in which these decisions and behaviors are
  2. We have a broad methodological scope. We aim to address frontline research questions through (the combination of) a multitude of research philosophies and This methodological scope ensures a more comprehensive and in-depth understanding of our research focus.
  3. By its very nature, public administration is an interdisciplinary field. Our colloquium explicitly concurs with this tradition. We combine insights from different disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, criminology, and organizational studies to move street-level bureaucracy scholarship and public administration


These three contributions make sure that we can contribute to theory development on the work of street-level bureaucrats in complex contexts.

Guiding our research focus are three main questions:

  1. What decisions do street-level bureaucrats make and what behaviors and routines do they develop in complex contexts?
  2. How do individual, interactional, organizational and environmental characteristics impact street-level bureaucrats’ working conditions, decisions and behavior including their evaluation and treatment of citizen-clients?
  3. To whom do street-level bureaucrats direct their attention and grant access to public resources?

To attain our objectives, our colloquium will host 3 activities each year, of which some bi- annual, over a 5 year period that provide ample learning and networking opportunities:

1. Theory seminar (bi-annual)

Participants will connect current societal and technical developments to existing and emerging key concepts in street-level bureaucracy research, such as discretion and value trade-offs. We will explicitly use interdisciplinary insights to discuss the meaning and usability of such concepts in current and future empirical research on street-level bureaucracy, thereby stimulating the development of joint research projects and/or publications.

2. Methodological seminar (bi-annual)

Participants will discuss current developments and challenges in doing street-level bureaucracy research. Topics can include the use of mixed methods, comparative research and multi-level analysis. By fostering methodological discussions between scholars with different backgrounds, we strive to work towards a common ‘frontline’ methodological language despite the use of different methods and empirical traditions.

3. Master class (annual)

Keynote or guest lectures by (inter)national street-level bureaucracy experts to engage in debate based on innovative insights. These experts may be established professors, but we explicitly want to make space for emerging scholars, such as PhD candidates who defended a thesis on street-level bureaucracy.

4. NIG conference panel (annual)

In 2021, our panel received the second highest submissions. We intend to continue this success and host a panel at the annual NIG conference. We will also expand our focus to gain more international recognition by submitting panel proposals to IRSPM and PMRC.

5. NIG elective course (once)

In the current NIG curriculum, an explicit focus on understanding street-level bureaucrats’ decisions and behaviors and its implications for citizens is missing. We argue that this knowledge is crucial for the development of public administration and political science scholars. Therefore, at the end-term of our colloquium (in year 5) we intend to ‘go out with a bang’ and host a NIG elective course. If successful, it can become part of the bi-annual NIG curriculum.

We expect to generate the following output:

  1. A vibrant and active network of NIG-scholars (senior and junior) working on street- level bureaucracy topics
  2. At least 2 theory and 2 method seminars with about 20 participants
  3. 5 master classes with about 20 participants
  4. 5 panel sessions at upcoming NIG conferences with about 20 abstract submissions
  5. At least 1 panel session at an international conference such as IRSPM or PMRC
  6. 1 course for PhD Candidates in the NIG elective curriculum
  7. Publication of a special issue with contributions from various subdisciplines in street-level bureaucracy research

Noortje de Boer, Assistant Professor at School of Governance, Utrecht University

Margot Kersing, PhD Candidate at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioral Sciences,
Erasmus University ( | coordinating chair)

Shelena Keulemans, Assistant Professor at Department of Public Administration, Institute
for Management Research, Radboud University (

Kim Loyens, Assistant Professor at School of Governance, Utrecht University

Lieke Oldenhof, Associate Professor at Erasmus School of Health Policy and Management,
Erasmus University (

Nadine Raaphorst, Assistant Professor at Institute of Public Administration, FGGA, Leiden
University (

Gabriela Szydlowski, PhD Candidate at School of Governance, Utrecht University
( | coordinating chair)