Is it possible to govern frontline workers?

8 Sep

Just before the summer we (Duco Bannink, myself and Eelco van Wijk) published a chapter on street-level bureaucrats (a.k.a. frontline workers) and the feasibility of control in Understanding street-level bureaucracy (edited by Hupe, Hill and Buffat). We present a framework for mapping the control challenges in street-level bureaucracy depending on the degree of ambiguity and the degree of complexity of the frontline task and conclude that current theories fail to address the double governance challenge of simultaneously complex and ambiguous contexts. Our empirical study into current practices of control shows both ineffective and effective approaches.

When both ambiguity and complexity are low, the control challenge is about conformity to rules and the control mechanism of bureaucratic control is appropriate. When ambiguity is high – i.e. there are different normative preferences and interests – and complexity is low, the control challenge is about alignment of those different preferences and managerialism is often applied, as incentives help align preferences. When complexity is high – i.e. there is factual uncertainty about social risks and problems – and ambiguity is low, the application of expertise to specific client cases is called for and professionalism or competence control is appropriate When, however, both complexity and ambiguity are simultaneously high, the existing theories about control mechanisms are not appropriate as we are faced with a double governance challenge. The high ambiguity requires alignment of the different normative preferences, while at the same time the high complexity requires that frontline works can apply their professional expertise to the specific client case.


heterogeneity of preferences and interests

Low High

factual uncertainty of risks

Low Bureaucracy (enforcement) Managerialism
High Professionalism (expertise) ??

Figure: Control mechanisms and complexity and ambiguity

We empirically investigated 42 cases where frontline workers performed simultaneously complex and ambiguous tasks and identified the control mechanisms that were used. The tasks varied widely: judge’s rulings, community policing, inspecting chicken factories, providing home care, re-employment services, youth protection services and so on.

We found that where control incentives were strong, political and organizational managers tended to apply rule-based and incentive-based controls, even where task characteristics block the effectiveness of these controls. This led to tensions and unintended effects with respect to client case treatment and/or employee well-being. In eight cases street-level bureaucrats and their managers openly complained about the bad fit of control mechanisms to the task. In about one third of the cases managers had found a way to shield street-level bureaucrats from the external pressures of managerial or bureaucratic controls. Problems with conflicting controls and task requirements therefore did not reach the street level. This ‘shielded professionalism’ acknowledges the complexity challenge, but underappreciates the ambiguity challenge.

In particular in small organizations where the leader was both manager and co-worker, a primus inter pares, we observed an integration of control mechanisms that addressed both the complexity and ambiguity to everyone’s satisfaction. Further research is needed to better understand the structure of this control mechanism, but a few characteristics can be identified: management and frontline workers collectively define the governance arrangement and there is personal interaction between management and frontline workers.

We propose that current perspectives on formal controls assume that trust and control are substitutes, which complicates the double governance challenge. Control addresses the ambiguity challenge, and trust the complexity challenge, but when they are substitutes, the double governance challenge is not addressed. The empirical cases where the double governance challenge was addressed effectively appear to meet the conditions for control and trust to complement each other. The more frontline workers are able to participate in the development and application of formal controls, the more their self-determination is enhanced and the more trust and formal control may strengthen each other. In other words, the ambiguity challenge may be addressed through the formal controls, while at the same time the complexity challenge is addressed through trust in the professional expertise of the frontline workers.

This blog refers to: Bannink, D.B.D., F.E. Six and E.G. van Wijk (2015). ‘Bureaucratic, market or professional control? A theory on the relation between street-level task characteristics and the feasibility of control mechanisms.’ In Hupe, Hill and Buffat. Understanding street-level bureaucrats: on how they work and being managed. Bristol: Policy press, pp. 205-225.