Teams and public service delivery

19 Mar

Frontline worker teams play an important role in how frontline workers and their managers cope with the inherent tensions of complex and ambiguous public services. Based on our research we identified five conditions for effective frontline worker teams.

Both frontline workers, a.k.a. street-level bureaucrats, and their managers cope in different ways with the inherent tensions that they face due to the simultaneously complex and ambiguous contexts of their work. Extant research focused on how individual frontline workers work with their clients or how individual frontline workers are controlled by their managers. Hardly any research exists on the role of frontline worker teams in street-level bureaucracies; a phenomenon that is increasingly found in practice. In a paper[1] we just submitted to the upcoming IRSPM-conference (Birmingham 2015) we investigated how frontline worker teams influenced public service delivery. The selected setting was how Dutch residential youth care institutions protect children against sexual abuse. The research was financed by the Samson committee who was appointed by the Dutch government to investigate the sexual abuse of children placed under government care (see report, in Dutch).

We found that teams of child-care social workers played a central role in the protective arrangement that found widespread agreement among informants. When we analyzed why this was, we found that teams supported both frontline workers and their managers in coping with the inherent tensions in their roles and contexts. The overarching tension was between a child-centered approach versus an institution-centered approach. The child-centered approach focused on the child’s needs, whereas the institution-centered approach focused on the care institution’s interests and logics (see Table). This is not necessarily new, as previous research into frontline work found that frontline workers either become citizen agents or state agents (Maynard-Moody & Musheno, 2000, €) and either move towards clients or away from clients (Tummers et al, 2015, €). Prior research usually portrays the relationship between frontline workers and their managers as conflictual. Either the frontline workers/professionals “win” and they are granted large discretion; or the managers “win” with intrusive controls either in the form of rules of performance targets (e.g., Lipsky, 1980; Noordegraaf, 2008; Trommel, 2009).

The work of Gillian Ruch helped us to better understand these coping mechanisms. She observed that child-care social work is “risk-ridden, uncertain and anxiety-provoking”(Ruch, 2012, p. 1316, €). If the governance arrangement does not explicitly acknowledgde and accommodate these anxieties, then many workers and managers may seek emotional refuge in the cognitive-rational institution-centered approach, avoiding the potentially anxiety-provoking aspects of their practice. And as a result the quality of public service delivery suffers.

Table: Overarching tension: two approaches to protecting children in homes against sexual abuse

Characteristics Child-centered approach Institution-centered approach


Child’s specific needs and logic Institution’s interests and logic
Coping strategies
–   Frontline worker Moving towards clients Moving away from clients
–   Manager Application of frontline expertise; professionalism


Forced alignment via rules and procedures; managerialism
Principles –   Normative framework that provided stability and clarity –   Quality managed via procedures and PDCA cycle


–   Child’s needs center stage; child’s opinions respected. –   Institution’s continuity (financial and reputation)


–   Interventions aimed at strengthening child’s resilience, supporting their development. –   Efficiency and economy determine capacity for service delivery


–   Protection aimed at sustainable solution; in line with child’s desire for continuity and stability –   Compliance to procedures is enforced
–   Social network involved in solution.


Well-functioning teams provided frontline workers a safe space in which to talk about their emotions and anxieties, work through dilemmas and stay focussed on the child-centered principles (Ruch, 2005, 2007a, 2007b €). Teams also helped to continuously improve frontline worker expertise and helped align normative positions, thus reducing the normative ambiguity. When managers saw the quality of frontline work in teams, it helped reduce their anxieties, which in turn made them less likely to resort to the institution-centered approach (Ruch, 2012 €). Based on this study we tentatively identified five conditions for effective frontline worker teams delivering public services in complex and ambiguous contexts:

  1. Shared normative principles with sufficient buy-in from frontline workers and managers, like the child-centered principles.
    Such shared principles support the safe place that frontline workers and managers need to deal with their emotions and make teams work. When such a shared normative framework is missing, alignment of normative principles within the team and the wider organization is reduced and team members find it harder to share their anxieties and uncertainties within the team, which in turn leads to greater tendencies to resort to rational-cognitive institution-centered approach.
  2. Sufficient opportunities for frontline workers to gain the professional expertise they needed through education and training; this expertise is then continuously improved within the team. The team practices of regular case discussions, dialogue and feedback can only work if the team members have the basic expertise. When this is lacking, team effectiveness is reduced. Lack of time and resources for training and high turnover are factors that reduce levels of expertise in teams.
  3. Sufficient dialogic and reflective competencies to participate constructively in teams.
    These competencies are not only important for the case discussions, dialogue and feedback within the team, but also for frontline worker interactions with clients and managers. The effectiveness of the teams is largely dependent on all team members being able to actively engage in the case discussions, dialogue and feedback. These practices allow team members to cope with their anxieties and uncertainties that are inherent to frontline work. This in turn facilitates that frontline workers, their teams and the organizations as a whole can work from the child-centered perspective and not resort to the rational-cognitive institution-centered approach to avoid those emotions of anxiety. When this is achieved, turnover and sickness levels of frontline workers are reduced and the organization’s efficiency improves.
  4. Sufficient continuity of team members to build trust and an open, reflective climate within the team.
    Reflective practices – like case discussion, dialogue and feedback – require safe spaces in which team members feel safe to address their anxieties and uncertainties; this means that team members trust each other and the team has an open climate. Sufficient continuity thus supports reflective practices that in turn reduce frontline worker turnover and sickness levels, which helped with the continuity of team members. The organization’s increased efficiency (see above) allows for better training and skill development. In all, a virtuous cycle of effective service delivery. High turnover of team members, on the other hand, hampers trust building and can create a downward vicious cycle of declining effectiveness.
  5. Supportive managers who trust the team and are willing to design formal controls in dialogue with frontline workers.
    When teams are effective in supporting frontline workers to work from the child-centered principles and, as a result, client satisfaction is likely to be high with fewer complications in care and protection, then managers are more likely to trust the team and delegate to them. Effective team performance helps reduce managers’ anxieties and uncertainties, which strengthens their resistance to the rational-cognitive institution-centered approach. This in turn supports team effectiveness, another virtuous reinforcing cycle. This positive interaction often leads to more dialogue about procedures and other formal controls so that child-care social workers experience them as enabling.

Thus, we propose that (1) the more frontline worker teams meet the five conditions for teams, the more they facilitate that the public service is considered to be effectively delivered. And (2) the more frontline worker teams and their managers collectively agree on how teams and their frontline work are controlled (cf Weibel and Six, 2013), the more (a) frontline workers will perceive that those controls enable and support public service delivery; and (b) managers will trust and delegate to frontline worker teams.

What are your experiences with frontline worker teams?

[1] Six, Lünnemann and Bannink (2015). Teams and street-level bureaucracy: the role of teams in coping with inherent tensions in complex and ambiguous public service delivery. Paper for IRSPM conference, Birmingham.