When citizens interact with the state, they encounter street-level bureaucrats—the welfare workers, police officers, counselors and educators responsible for implementing public policy and enforcing the law. Unlike their more senior counterparts, these workers have received little attention from political theorists. I argue that this neglect is due, in part, to a reductive understanding of how bureaucracies can and should operate, which masks the true scope of frontline discretion.
By combining political theory with ethnographic fieldwork, I aim to show that street-level bureaucrats are caught in a troubling predicament. The proper implementation of public policy depends on their capacity to act as sensible moral agents, yet they must operate in a bureaucratic environment that tends to truncate that very agency. If bureaucratic work is ethically draining it is not, as commonly assumed, because bureaucrats must unthinkingly apply rules but because they must shoulder, day in and day out, the weight of difficult discretionary decisions.
Approaching the state from the bottom-up, through the lens of street-level bureaucrats, brings into focus the need for a political theory of implementation—a theory that takes as its subject matter not the question of what the state ought to do, but the question of how it ought to do it.