Street-Level Bureaucrats

Who holds the most power in Bedford when it comes to defining our town’s response to homelessness?

Is it our mayor, Dave Hodgson? Our MP, Mohammad Yasin? The CEO of Bedford Borough Council, Philip Simpkins?

It’s an important question because our Local Governement has by far the biggest role to play in the solutions to homelessness in our town – if they get it right, homelessness goes down in both the short and long terms, and if they don’t, it doesn’t.

Michael Lipsky’s classic book, ‘Street Level Bureaucracy’, would actually say it’s none of these – he would instead say it is the street-level bureaucrats – the frontline workers, who really define how services are delivered.

‘Street-level bureaucrats make policy in two related respects,’ Lipsky writes, ‘they exercise wide discretion in decisions about citizens with whom they interact. Then, when take in concert, their individual actions add up to agency behaviour.’

‘In most public welfare departments, regulations are encyclopaedic,’ Lipsky goes on to say, ‘yet at the same time they are constantly being changed. They may be so voluminous and contradictory that they can only be enforced or invoked selectively.’

So for example, the council’s Adult Safeguarding Policy from 2015 may well state in bold, underlined capitals, that ‘Anyone who first becomes aware of concerns of abuse MUST REPORT those concerns AS SOON AS POSSIBLE to the correct point within their own organisation’. But in 2015, the Housing Options Service, which dealt with around 1000 homeless households, including many people who had care and support needs and who were victim to various forms of abuse, raised exactly ZERO safeguarding alerts, because, presumably, they just didn’t have time so selected to ignore that policy.

And this is where street-level bureaucrats have all the real influence. They can choose to enforce a regulation for one person and not another – to house one person in suitable accommodation and leave another on the streets. They simply don’t have the resources to follow the law and their own policies for everyone.

The problem with this is of course, is that the real reasoning for choosing to house one person over another can evade real scrutiny. Maybe the officer got out of the wrong side of bed that day, or maybe the council’s temporary accommodation is full, but the result is the same – vulnerable people experience real injustice at the hands of their own government and are left homeless.

Lipsky’s book was referred to several times in the Parliamentary debates when the Care Act was being created, because they recognised that social workers had so much power when working within the law and wanted to try to build into it safeguards against social workers acting improperly. And remember that social workers will be specifically trained in things like anti-discriminatory practice and can be struck off when they act improperly.

Homelessness officers, on the other hand, have no such background training as standard or professional bodies to be accountable to. Training is very limited and if they are found to have acted improperly, as we’ve seen before, they just go and work for a different council. So whilst the real power may remain in the hands of frontline workers, the powers-that-be can at least ensure they are well trained and take robust action when failures do come to light.