How do Street-Level Bureaucrats categorise citizens to decide who should receive services?

Lotta and KirschbaumGabriela Lotta and Charles Kirschbaum 

Street-level bureaucrats (SLB) are those workers who have direct contact with citizens while delivering services to them, for example teachers, police, counsellors, and health workers. They are very important both for the state and for citizens for several reasons. for example, they are the “face” of the state for many citizens, they are the “last mile” individuals in the policy implementation process and in the hierarchy of the organisation, and they also have significant power to allocate resources. Consequently many research studies, including ours, analyse street-level bureaucrats’ behaviour and how they interact with citizens. In our recent research article in Policy & Politics on How street-level bureaucrats use Conceptual Systems to categorise clients, we observe one specific aspect of SLBs’ work: how they classify types of citizens to decide who should receive each kind of service. We analyse this phenomenon by observing teachers.

We provided vignettes – short stories – to 40 teachers in São Paulo public schools to observe how they categorised similar behaviours of students within different social contexts. The vignettes featured a similar story but with variations in some of the students’ characteristics, such as their family. Our analysis shows that, even when confronting similar situations and students’ behaviour, teachers suggest different actions based on how they classify the student and on the differences in their family’s characteristics. Using ‘cultural schemata’ lenses, which helped us analyse the occurrence of categories and actions, we interpreted the extent to which categories and actions clustered together or rejected each other.

Our findings show how teachers produce different types of deservingness based on how they interpret the student and his/her family. These findings have important implications for policymakers in ensuring equal access to services for students requiring additional support in the classroom. Policymakers should identify how the classification process takes place in each context and how this process affects the way students are treated. Based on that evidence, policymakers should also encourage collective discussions about this, providing information and incentives to influence the categorisation process and the relationship between teachers and students to ensure that the latter are treated fairly.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Lotta, Gabriela; Kirshcbaum, Charles (2021) ‘How street-level bureaucrats use conceptual systems to categorise clients’,  Policy & Politics, DOI:

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

Can street-level bureaucrats be nudged to increase effectiveness in welfare policy?

What motivates street-level bureaucrats to implement the reforms of elected politicians?

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