SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 2 – Behavioural insights into what motivates public employees on the front line to respond to reforms championed by elected politicians

Special issue blog series on advancing our understanding of the politics behind nudge and the ‘behavioural insights’ trend in public policy.

Don leeDon Lee 

My recent article in Policy & Politics investigates how bureaucrats on the front line make policy implementation decisions. Political leaders and lawmakers tend to assume that street-level bureaucrats will follow their direction and implement polices as they devised. However, front line workers, in fact, have room to interpret the policies in the implementation process. To understand what important factors influence street-level bureaucrats’ implementation decisions, my article examines two central elements in policy implementation: 1) whether street-level bureaucrats’ policy orientation is congruent with that of elected politicians and 2) to what extent street-level bureaucrats have discretion in implementing policies.

Exploring the impact of these two elements is important, because they will affect how policies are actually implemented on the front line. Using a novel list survey experiment with 1,800 local civil servants from all 243 local governments in South Korea, we found that street-level bureaucrats were more likely to implement reform policies instigated by local elected politicians when their own policy positions were reflected in the reforms, as opposed to when they have different policy positions from those of local elected politicians. We also found bureaucratic discretion in policy implementation to be an important factor: street-level bureaucrats were more likely to implement reforms instigated by local elected politicians when they perceived themselves as having more discretion vis-à-vis less discretion.

These findings reveal a behavioural insight into the conditions where public employees on the front line are more likely to respond to change championed by elected politicians versus conditions where those public employees are more likely to follow existing rules in the policy implementation process. In contrast to the general assumption by political leaders and lawmakers, street-level bureaucrats may not consistently implement the policies devised by elected politicians. Instead, bureaucrats’ responsiveness depends largely on the extent to which their policy preferences are reflected in the policies to be implemented, and the degree to which they have freedom to interpret and adapt the policies in actual implementation.

Our research makes contributions to the current state of the art of behavioural public policy and administration. We provide a behavioural insight through experimental evidence of conditions where street-level bureaucrats are more likely to respond to elected politicians’ policy change rather than abiding by existing rules in implementation decisions. While behavioural science has been discussed extensively in association with individuals, less attention has been paid to the discipline as a tool to better understand behaviours in the public sector. To fill this clear gap, we demonstrate that the behaviour of bureaucrats is shaped by and changes with street-level factors, such as bureaucrats’ own policy dispositions and their perception of discretion in implementation.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Lee, Don S. and  Park, Soonae (2020) ‘What motivates street-level bureaucrats to implement the reforms of elected politicians?’,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557320X15955052478653

Read the other blog piece in the series:

FORTHCOMING SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 1 – Why Nudge Sometimes Fails: Fatalism and the Problem of Behaviour Change

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Introduction to the upcoming special issue: Beyond nudge: advancing the state-of-the-art of behavioural public policy and administration [Free]

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