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Street-level bureaucracy research and the assessment of ethical conduct.

Chapter in book
Authors Helena Olofsdotter Stensöta
Published in Research handbook on street-level bureaucracy : the ground floor of government in context / edited by Peter Hupe.
ISBN 9781786437624
Publisher Edward Elgar Research Handbooks
Place of publication Cheltenham
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Political Science
Language en
Subject categories Public Administration Studies, Political Science


Since the early 1990s ethics has been increasingly discussed within the field of Public Administration. It is argued that good government needs to pay attention to values and ethics as this offers a counterbalance to the emphasis on efficiency, brought forward by New Public Management. Without an increasing emphasis on ethics, values and ethical considerations these features risk being neglected and downplayed (Chapman and O’Toole 1995; Frederickson 1999; Eimicke, Cohen and Perez Salasar 2000; Brady 2003; Cooper 2004; Menzel 2012). Further, ethics is regarded as useful for preventing abuse of public office in the form of corruption. As such, the discussion on public ethics is tied to the larger discussion on good government and good governance that is increasingly growing (Rothstein and Holmberg 2012; Stensöta and Wängnerud 2018). Strangely enough, this boom has been largely absent in research on street-level bureaucracy. This is odd considering first, that many problems discussed in street-level bureaucracy have a clear bearing on ethical dilemmas. Street-level bureaucrats are continuously involved in weighing different possible outcomes against each other as they make their judgements and this affects the lives of citizens in significant ways. Implementation is often described as a process where goals are weighed against each other. Such weighing of goals is central to street-level bureaucracy and concerns moral considerations; in other word, ethics is involved. Second, the fact that street-level bureaucrats enjoy discretion points to the insufficiency of formal rules to determine behaviour. Ethics in public administration is usually comprehended as an informal way of enhancing good governance. The distinction between formal and informal separates between formal rules, which concern written down laws and other official documents, versus informal rules, which refer to norms and other softer ways that affect behaviour. Thus, ethics fits with how we ordinarily understand how the field of street-level bureaucracy is shaped. While there is a discussion about whether ethical judgements and reasoning can be made at all by ‘bureaucrats’, assuming that they follow rules and have no leeway, this critique is less pertinent when directed towards street-level bureaucrats, as they enjoy discretion (Bourgault 2015; see discussion in Stensöta 2010).

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