The effects of accountability, responsiveness, and professionalism on bureaucratic discretion: An experiment in street-level decision-making

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Barry Bozeman


bureaucratic discretion

Subject Categories

Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Social Work


A perennial debate within Public Administration concerns the means by which "bureaucratic responsibility" may be achieved. Throughout the history of the discipline, scholars and practitioners have proposed various recommendations, ranging from efforts to increase the level of professionalism among public sector practitioners to the inculcation of constitutional and democratic values. Such efforts are undergirded by the desire to enhance the competence and effectiveness of public sector decisions while ensuring that public bureaucracies remain subservient to the political ends of our democratic system.

In this study I argue that historical and contemporary efforts to achieve bureaucratic responsibility reflect an emphasis upon three underlying and oftentimes competing sets of values: accountability, responsiveness, and expertise. However, knowledge of the effectiveness of reform efforts remains limited because the research has not adequately addressed the conditions or contexts under which one set of values may play a more influential role vis-a-vis the others.

In this study I examine how the interaction among these values is played out within the context of street-level bureaucracies. I employ a repeated measures experimental design that simulates a training session in a local welfare bureaucracy. Subjects, comprised of graduate students and local social work practitioners, were assigned randomly to one of two treatment levels of organizational control. Within each level subjects reviewed four composite case files of clients seeking public assistance and recommended benefits and services. The case files differed according to the level of compassion evoked.

The purpose of the experiment is to assess how subjects' decisions are influenced by the level of compassion toward clients and how that relationship is moderated by differences in the level of organizational control and professionalism. The findings showed that all three factors influenced subjects' decisions, with organizational control exerting the greatest influence and professionalism exerting the least. These results quality some of the Weberian notions regarding the "disinterested bureaucrat", they provide further insights into the determinants of bureaucratic discretion, and they support prior evidence indicating how the provision of human services can be influenced by factors unrelated to reasons justifying the need for assistance.


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