Webinar: Dignity in street-level bureaucracies: beyond reason, balance and pragmatism (followed by Q&A)

Jonathan Patterson (Departmental Lecturer in French), will be chairing a webinar on forms of dignity in the bureaucratic, featuring a lecture by Professor Tony Evans (Social Work, RHUL).

This webinar will be hosted by the Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars. The aim is to foster dialogue between the humanities and social sciences on the ideals and functioning of bureaucracy.

Public service bureaucracies and messy organizations. Bureaucrats work within policies that are confused and confusing, and are expected to use their judgement to make services work. This is the picture presented by Street Level Bureaucracy theory, which argues that good street-level bureaucrats are reasonable, balanced and pragmatic. This sweeping analysis of public services, however, doesn’t take account of the different relationship between policy and service in different areas of public provision. In some areas, policies constitute services. Dignity entails acting in line with one’s commitments and in a way that is appropriate to circumstances. They may be the rules by which benefits are allocated. In other areas, policies are a looser framework, within which decisions have to be made, such as policing; and in other areas, particularly professional welfare services, policies are more about enabling provision than specifying what should be done. In all of these areas, different forms of judgement are appropriate. One may emphasize procedural correctness, another the right outcome, and another meeting particular commitments. In each type of service, the idea of one global, right way of thinking and acting is misplaced, and ignores the dignity of particular roles and requirements in different fields. Furthermore, in most public services—particularly welfare services—practitioners have to move through these three forms of policy relationship and judgement, in order to provide a service. My argument is that, to do this, practitioners have to use reason, and balance, and pragmatism, but not as some abstract standard of decision-making; rather, as elements in the grammar of everyday service provision.