Discover more from The Garden of Forking Paths
The Hidden Plight of the Street Level Bureaucrat
Most encounters with government happen with “street-level bureaucrats.” One academic decided to figure out what it’s like to be one—and it gave him sympathy for the people so many love to hate.
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths. If you enjoy reading my work, or if it makes you think, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription. I rely exclusively on reader support. You can tell others that you are a 21st century Medici-style arts patron.
When we think of power, we normally think of figures in crisp suits with red ties, sparkling white teeth, and broad, fake smiles — the politicians who kiss babies and the business leaders who donate to them. But that’s not really how most people experience power. Power, for many of us, is closer, more banal, and often maddening. It’s the power that we encounter in daily life that so often helps or harms people.
Rarely do we come away from the Department of Motor Vehicles office smiling ourselves, a big grin on our faces after a pleasant and efficient interaction with government. It’s such a universal experience that “the DMV” has become a stand-in for the gruff inefficiency of public bureaucracy. But we rarely pause to consider the hidden puzzle within. Many, if not most, of the people who go into public service—including as government office workers—do so because they want to help others. So why do they end up almost universally appearing to be callous and indifferent?
One political theorist decided to find out. And he did it in a way that you have to respect: he temporarily became a “street level bureaucrat,” part of the front line in the government’s interaction with the public. And after a long time embedded on the inside, he realized that the answer to “why is the DMV so awful?” is far more complicated and far more interesting than it first appears.
Bureaucracy, but with AK-47s
As a boy, Bernardo Zacka got used to the Lebanese ritual of passing through military checkpoints. Slow down the car. Flick the light on. Turn the radio down. Answer questions directly. Be polite to the man with the AK-47. After all, it’s up to him whether you pass, get detained, or are turned back.
At every encounter, questions went unanswered. What were the soldiers looking for? Did they have a checklist? Or was it all just an arbitrary impulse based on whether they’d had their coffee that morning?
Beirut was a cosmopolitan metropolis, a Mediterranean city home to a bustling nightlife and some of the best food on the planet. But there were lingering reminders of its civil war. For Bernardo, military checkpoints represented a common encounter with someone in power, not a faceless call center, but an unsmiling face with a gun.
When Bernardo turned 17, he got on a plane and flew to Boston to take up his place at MIT, where he’d been accepted to study electrical engineering and computer science. Zacka looks like he belongs at MIT. In his younger days, he grew out wavy shoulder-length hair. He wears round glasses. You could easily picture him coding in the morning and hunched over an engineering textbook in the student café in the afternoon.
Zacka is mild-mannered, quiet but jovial, with a warm smile. He’s thoughtful and patient. Describing him as “standoffish” or “rude” would be about as accurate as describing him as the starting first baseman for the Boston Red Sox.
And yet, Zacka would soon become the very thing he encountered in his childhood: the standoffish rude government official who says no to desperate people who want to live their lives, but need help.
One morning, a few days after his arrival in America, Bernardo noticed that everyone was congregating around the television screen. Two planes had just flown into the World Trade Centers in New York. Forget the Mediterranean nightlife. Being from Lebanon had always meant being from “over there,” but this was different. Zacka soon realized that, like tens of thousands of other people, he had been put on a flight watch list, one that Zacka rightly notes tends to be filled with “Arabs who are roughly of fighting age.” He had done nothing wrong. He had just been born in the “wrong” place.
There was nobody to appeal to. But there was that familiar experience: encounters with a face and a gun. Nearly every time Zacka subsequently flew on an airplane, he was ushered into a special room for further questioning. Answer questions directly. Be polite to the man with the holstered handgun. After all, it’s up to them whether you can make it back to your studies or not.
After graduating from MIT, Zacka started a job at the elite consulting firm, McKinsey. He was a corporate jetsetter: almost weekly trips to London, along with jaunts to Colombia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. As you might guess, the faces he encountered at the airport scowled with renewed interest at the pages of his passport. “Oh, you didn’t make it to Yemen,” one official “joked” with Bernardo. “That’s the only one that’s missing.” At times, his American-born McKinsey colleagues would already be discussing spreadsheets with clients while Bernardo was still being questioned at the airport.
One of the unnerving aspects of these encounters was a mismatch not just in power, but also information. Zacka had no idea why he was being detained, and had no idea what their files said about him. He occasionally got disturbing glimpses. “Nice sweater,” one airport official said to him. “I see from your photos that you wear that one a lot.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
What Bernardo found most interesting about these experiences is that they were not idiosyncratic – this was how many, if not most, people experience the state: as faceless power, wielded in a seemingly arbitrary, unresponsive fashion. After years of that same routine, he decided to answer the puzzles that had started at checkpoints during his childhood and returned again in unfriendly rooms at American airports.
When people hold power over you, what matters: the person, or the system? How much discretionary power do these frontline workers really have? Are they just “doing their job?” And how does it change the person doing that job to constantly wield power over their fellow citizens? Zacka returned to Harvard to start his PhD research, determined to find out.
Zacka embedded himself by volunteering as a receptionist at an anti-poverty agency, the frontline of government in the lives of ordinary people. Unlike soldiers at checkpoints or screeners at airports, he didn’t have a gun. But he nonetheless found himself as one of those faces of government that forms the “street-level bureaucracy” – the people from government who actually interact with normal citizens and make decisions that directly affect their lives. Zacka suddenly found himself surrounded with colleagues who had the power to help people, or to harm them.
On his first day, Zacka showed up in a crisply pressed suit, ready to be the smiling, welcoming face of professional competence. Instead, the reception area—his realm for the next eight months—descended into chaos.
It was fuel assistance season, a time of the year when people either get help or lose their heat. And, as it so happened, the agency had just made a new rule: no walk-ins. Many of the people hoping to get fuel assistance hadn’t gotten the memo, however, and Zacka immediately found himself breaking the news to people who were living on the brink. Putting on his most professional, most polite, most sympathetic tone, Zacka announced that only those with appointments would get seen that day.
In real-time, he could see in their eyes that they were making a calculation: whether to erupt in anger or to keep cool. Keeping cool, many figured, would be the only way to ensure they would stay warm that winter. After all, they all suspected that Zacka or his co-workers held influence over whether they would get money to heat their homes. Most tried to politely ask for an exception. One man chose to erupt. He got in Zacka’s face and shouted obscenities.
Within hours of starting as a street-level bureaucrat, he said words that he could hardly believe as they left his mouth: “I’m sorry, but I’m just doing my job.”
Impossible choices, day after day
Zacka would usually pick up the phone to someone acutely stressed. Every so often, they’d be sobbing. They were desperate. Zacka had to decide: was this an emergency, or just a perceived emergency? Was it worth urgently pulling a co-worker off a case that he or she was already working on? Or was it someone who was just trying to game the system, throwing in a bit of waterworks for effect? Those instances were rare, of course, but you could never be sure. And after all, how was Zacka supposed to know whether he was making the right call?
Zacka says he struggled with a constant “sense of uncertainty as to whether or not you've made the right decision.” Should he have worked a little bit harder to get someone enrolled in a labyrinthine public support program, even if they didn’t have the right paperwork or they showed up without an appointment? That daily agony consumes many street-level bureaucrats when they start working. But it’s impossible not to grow numb to it over time. It’s a coping mechanism.
To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Plus, there were serious tradeoffs with every decision. These weren’t immediately obvious until Zacka found himself in the midst of them. For example, his bosses wanted the agency to hit targets—to make sure that the highest possible number of cases were processed. That seems to make sense. But the pressure that Zacka and his colleagues felt meant that their humanity could occasionally be stomped out of them as everyone became a case number instead of a person who was cold or hungry.
Consider the following episode. A haggard man comes in, urgently in need of fuel assistance. He doesn’t have the right paperwork filled out. Plus, as you’re looking through his documents, you realize that he is eligible for other financial assistance that could genuinely help him.
As Zacka writes: “You can devote the next hour to him or to those in the waiting room. Do you delve into the case?” In those instances, Zacka found himself in the shoes of the soldiers at the checkpoint or the officials at the airport. He had discretionary power over others. But as in the airport, there was also an information gap. He couldn’t possibly know who needed help the most. What he did know was that making the wrong call could really hurt some desperate, needy people.
In another instance Zacka recites, a domestic abuse victim comes in, desperate for refuge. You find her a shelter. The phones are ringing off the hook. Your colleagues are all barely treading water with their caseloads. The abuse victim asks whether there are any other shelters. She wants one closer to her elderly mother, so she can easily check in on her. Your boss comes in and tells you not to spend your time on the case. This is an anti-poverty center, not a domestic abuse helpline. If you want to help domestic abuse victims, go work there. Plus, if you help her, you’re setting a precedent.
You tell her you can’t help her.
Zacka had days like this for eight months. Millions of frontline bureaucrats do it for a career. “You’re feeling bad about what you did,” he says. “And you don’t want to not feel that, because if you stop feeling that…what have you become?” But on the other hand, people adapt. They have to. So, they put up masks. They get jaded. They start to assume that the sobbing person in the waiting room is faking it. They get cold. They snap at people.
Choices that were made—and often made democratically—made it impossible for frontline bureaucrats to cope with the need. Those who signed up for a career aimed at helping others became the face of callous indifference.
The hidden cost of hitting targets
Indifferent systems can produce serious consequences. In Louisiana, for example, case workers who were focused on reducing poverty were instructed to spend less time per application. Churn through them instead. It became a case processing mill. Person in, person out, box ticked. Then, something puzzling happened. There was a spike in domestic abuse across the state. It turns out that when people are treated as case numbers rather than human beings, they become less likely to open up to social workers. Many victims of horrific abuse had gotten help because they had built up a personal relationship with a case worker. In the processing mill, those women stayed silent.
Who is to blame for those failures? The case workers were the same people. Most of them presumably signed up for a comparatively low-paying job helping others get support because they genuinely wanted to help. And yet, from the perspective of domestic abuse victims who only felt stony stares, they only had one face to blame: the one in front of them, telling them they were sorry, but they were just doing their job.
Zacka’s point, as I understand it, is this: the system is broken. Sometimes, it grinds wonderful people down until they seem awful. This doesn’t happen to everyone, of course. Some people manage to remain themselves in the midst of broken system, but given the pressures they are subject to, how many of those unsung heroes could there realistically be? And how long could they hold up?
So the next time you have a charmless encounter with someone who is a street-level bureaucrat, cut them some slack. The person at the DMV might have shown up to their first day on the job just like him, an attitude as polished and genteel as his freshly pressed suit. But like him, they may have been worn down, day by day, by a system that forces them to bury their humanity. We have designed systems that do this to people, which means we can fix them. But until we do, keep Bernardo Zacka’s crushed enthusiasm in mind next time you’re at the DMV.
Bernardo Zacka’s excellent book is called When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency. It’s available here.
Thank you for reading this edition of the newsletter. If you found it interesting, learned something from it, or thought a little differently because of it, please consider signing up as a free subscriber, or if you’re feeling like a generous patron of the linguistic arts, for a paid subscription. Paid subscribers get twice the content and make The Garden of Forking Paths possible.