Accountability and street bureaucracy, is local government ready?

I have been interested in the way that social media is often used to hold organisations and individuals to account. For the most part, it is used to complain. The customer or service user is unsatisfied with their service or product and they wish to complain publicly to get it changed. Many times it works and organisations are increasingly sensitive to such complaints and criticism.

Social media allows the public to have a voice and to exercise that voice directly. What I have noticed recently is that the trend is changing. Instead of people complaining and hoping that the local media or their MP take an interest in the case, people are designing and developing their own campaigns on facebook, twitter, and on their blogs.

In many ways, it would appear that people are finding ways to hold street level bureaucrats to account for their decisions. The term street levevl bureaucrat comes from the work of Mike Lipsky on Street Level Bureaucracy.

Street-level bureaucracy is the subset of a public agency or government institution containing the individuals who carry out and enforce the actions required by laws and public policies. Street-level bureaucracy is accompanied by the idea that these individuals vary the extents to which they enforce the rules and laws assigned to them.

As this affects much of local government in the UK, I wondered how people were responding. As facebook sites and blogs often name officers in their public role, I wondered what effect that was having on the way people work. In particular, I wondered if any organisations were seeing it as more than a media issue and understanding it for what it is, an issue of policy making. By that I mean, if the street level bureaucrat has to make decisions under limited informaiton and pressure, is the formal structure there to protect them and support them, or is the formal structure there as a way to resolve any inconsistencies?  I would imagine the more contentious an issue, planning, social work, enforcement, the more the person wll want to challenge the decision and the person making the decision.  If this is occurring more, how are officers and organisations reacting? Are they doing more to empower their frontline staff and including them in the decision making? Or, are they giving them more discretionary power so they can make the decisions and their judgement supported?

The deeper question then reveals itself because it relates to the level of autonomy that frontline officers have to make decisions. If they are stuck in a rigid system, how do they reconcile what they need to do in the frontline, to satisfy the customer/client or just resolve the issue. Doees this encourage more discretionary decision making and enhance jugements, or does it lead to more rule following and more rules being produced in an effort to cover every possible contingency. In the later, case does that rob an officer of initiative and independence? Is such an approach possible in the social media age or in careers where decisions and judgements have to be made where no rules can be made to cover every eventuality.


I have written a blog on the topic if you are interested. I would be interested in your comments and views.


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