Impact of government distrust in interaction citizen – frontline professional

14 Jul

In this third blog of the series looking at the impact of government distrust on citizen trust or distrust, we look at the interaction between citizens and frontline professionals, where the policy decided by public leaders is actually implemented. We look at how the attitude and trust or distrust of frontline professionals towards citizens affects citizen trust or distrust. We base the analysis on the street-level bureaucracy theory proposed by Michael Lipsky (1980).

Citizen – public official interaction

What happens in that interaction? A client comes to the professional and tells of their needs and problems or requests a public service. The professional then has to look at all the different programmes with their rules that may apply to this specific client case. Which rules are applicable? When there are multiple needs, the rules that apply may contradict each other.

So the professional has, and needs, discretion to deal with the tension between being responsive to the client’s needs while complying with the rules. This is often a tension that creates a dilemma. By their choices frontline professionals actually make policy, rather than merely implementing policy. This was the conclusion Michael Lipsky drew in 1980 after studying how police officers do their work.[1] And it holds for all public tasks, such as education, all forms of care, and inspections and policing.

Coping strategies

Lipsky also pointed to the fact that these public tasks always suffer from a chronic lack of resources. The decision about the amount of resources is a political one that is quite unrelated to the demand for the service. This only exacerbates the tensions that these frontline professionals face and Lipsky observed they suffered from psychological stress. And when someone experiences stress, they tend to resort to coping strategies, just as a survival mechanism.

Over the past four decades lots of research has been done to identify different coping strategies that these frontline professionals may resort to. And recently a meta-analysis was done to collect all these coping strategies and find patterns.[2] Three families of coping strategies were identified and we  discuss them with their implications for citizen trust or distrust.

The first family is “moving away from clients”. This implies that professionals lean towards one end of the tension, being responsive to client needs while ignoring or actively breaking the rules. They can also use personal resources to help the vulnerable clients. They work unpaid overtime or they even buy school supplies privately, as some public teachers in the US do. Such behaviour increases the trust these citizens have in government.

Sometimes, however, professionals use their own biases to decide who is deserving of such special treatment and unfairly give some clients this special attention and not others. This is likely to lead to feelings of unfairness and injustice, which leads to distrust.

The second family of coping strategies is about professionals “moving away from clients”, complying with the rules while ignoring client needs. This may consist of simply following standard operating procedures, whether the client fits or not. Or rationing access to the service, by closing offices so that clients need to travel further; or reducing office hours. Or finally, avoid any meaningful direct interaction with clients, by avoiding face-to-face contact. Such behaviour will not increase trust, but rather lead to distrust, at best maybe lower trust.

The third and final family of coping strategies is fortunately a small family, since it is about seeking confrontation with the client. It is about extremely rigid rule following, exercising your power over the client or being aggressive. It must be said that some of this research was done with police officers where police brutality occurs, especially towards minorities. This is behaviour that is clearly distrustful and disrespectful of citizens and will clearly lead to higher distrust from citizens.

Today’s dynamic

Lipsky made this basic analysis four decades ago, but if anything the dynamics and tensions he identified have only become more pronounced. I mention some developments:

  • There are now more rules and stricter enforcement of rules.
  • After the financial crisis, around the world austerity measures were imposed to further increase the already chronic lack of resources.

All this meant increased pressure on frontline professionals to move away from clients rather than towards clients, which in turn leads to less trust and more distrust. In some cases the policy makers intentionally increased the administrative burdens for citizens, out of distrust of certain groups of citizens.

  • The automation that has taken place means less face-to-face contact and increased barriers for poor and often less educated citizens to navigate the system, leading to higher administrative burdens
  • Performance-based financing has led to more creaming, selecting simple cases to gain bigger rewards and ignoring the complex, costly cases.

This implies further experiences of citizens that professionals are disengaged, not interested in their needs, leading to lower trust. And more experience of unfair treatment and injustice, leading to active distrust.

So based on research into the interaction between professionals and citizens, we see that the stronger controls on the behaviour of professionals tend to lead to lower citizens trust and often even increase their active distrust.

[1] Lipsky (1980). Street-level Bureaucracy.

[2] Tummers et al. (2015). Coping During Public Service Delivery: A Conceptualization and Systematic Review of the Literature, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 25/4: 1099-1126.