Munro Review: Lipsky’s Notion of Street-Level Bureaucracy

The Munro Review; Lipsky’s Notion of Street-Level Bureaucracy put in practice

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Charlotte Bindels


Before an examination of the work conducted by social workers who are responsible for child protective services within the UK can take place, it is crucial to define the concept of Street-Level Bureaucracy (SLB). What does it exactly entail and who are street-level bureaucrats? Can we safely assume that social workers parallel the characteristics of street-level bureaucrats or is this assumption a false one? Social workers, in general, face enormous pressure from within the community to perform well. There is a lot at stake and the well-being of individuals needs to be protected. Thus, how could a government quantify government impact on citizens? Many scholars are still puzzled by this question as it poses many discussions. Michael Lipsky, a North American scholar, incorporated this discussion in his work on Street-Level Bureaucracy. In his book, Street-Level Bureaucracy; Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services he introduced the abovementioned term while gaining widespread recognition.

The concept is universal as the dilemmas and constraints faced by professionals operating at the street-level include various problems and challenges. But are these problems also compatible to the social workers within the child protection services in the United Kingdom?

The aim of the paper is to see whether social workers of child protective services in the United Kingdom show a resemblance to the notion of the Street-Level Bureaucracy Framework as put forward by Lipsky. This analysis will include the Final Report of The Munro Review of Child Protection as this report covers the recommendations to improve upon the child-centred system and is the prime sources for this report. Another main source describes the framework of Street-Level Bureaucracy introduced in Lipsky’s book; Street-Level Bureaucracy; Dilemmas of the individual in public services. Moreover, other concepts need to be examined as well, in order to analyze the possible relationship between social workers and street-level bureaucrats.

Finally, this paper will determine whether the relationship between social workers as described in the Munro report and the SLB framework of Lipsky appears compatible or not.

Conceptual Framework

First and foremost, an examination is needed of the theoretical framework used by Lipsky for his book on Street-Level Bureaucracy; Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services originally published in 1980. He presents a framework that allows for comprehension of the role of public service workers when it comes to policy implementation. He argues that teachers, social workers, and judges etc. constitute the essence of street-level bureaucrats. Additionally, he acknowledges that his book draws upon observations underlining collective behavior of public service organizations. Moreover, in his book he captures the importance of locating the problems street-level bureaucrats face while doing their jobs. By analyzing Street-Level Bureaucracy it becomes more evident to identify commonalities and deficiencies between different operational surroundings. (Lipsky, 1980)

Firstly, the term Street-Level Bureaucracy needs to be defined in order to comprehend the aim of this paper. Lipsky (1980) published his book on Street-Level Bureaucracy in 1980 providing a profound study of the influence of public service workers on public policy, the so-called street-level bureaucrats. The challenge, he stresses, is to find a balance between executing their jobs with considerable discretion while also serving as policy decision-makers. Examples of street-level bureaucrats typically include workers who interact directly with citizens while carrying out their jobs. Lipsky sums up teachers, judges and police officers to illustrate his point. However, for the purpose of this paper the focus will revolve around social workers as Lipsky also defines them as street-level bureaucrats. Hence, social workers must be viewed as policy shapers, not only as those who simply implement a policy.

Lipsky (1980) writes that there are two ways to interpret the term of street-level bureaucrats. On the one hand, he portrays them as being equal to public services, thus highlighting that this is how citizens interact. On the other hand, as originally intended by Lipsky, street-level bureaucrats only interact with citizens during the course of their jobs while simultaneously exercising discretion.

Another relevant concept to incorporate is the notion of social workers, as this paper also examines the Munro Review. While this may seem obsolete it is vital to understand the characteristics of these workers. More specifically, the social workers concerned with child protection in the UK. Can they be perceived as street-level bureaucrats? The definition of social work underwent many changes throughout the years. Globalization needs to be reckoned with as social workers nowadays face many challenges to practice their knowledge in a complex world. The core definition of social work reads as follows, Hare (2004)

“The social work profession promotes social change, problem-solving in human relationships, and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing. Utilizing theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.”

Discretion, another concept used extensively by Lipsky also needs to be explored. Lipsky (1980) regards discretion as beneficial to the policy process as it enhances policy at the grass roots level. The Oxford Dictionary defines discretion as: “Thefreedomtodecidewhat should be done in aparticularsituation” (Oxford online dictionary, n.d). Carrington (2005) describes discretion as a part of the decision-making process which will lead an individual to act or not to act. Moreover, he adds that these decision-makers have the freedom to decide on an action or non-action. According to Lipsky (1980) the use of discretion is critical as street-level bureaucrats communicate with citizens every day. However, this is not an easy task as dilemmas occur more frequently making the work of individuals within the public service complex. According to Lipsky (1980), social workers are drawn to the public service since they feel the need to help others. The continuation of discretion has both opponents and proponents. Proponents, such as Ellis et al. (1999), see discretion as support to filling up the gaps in public policy. Opponents, however, such as Baldwin view discretion as undermining official public policy (Baldwin, 1998). Thus, discretion can be viewed in different ways.

The concept of discretion is highlighted by Lipsky as the characteristics of street-level bureaucrats involve high levels of discretion as well as continuous interaction with citizens. The constraints and dilemmas faced by SLBs include insufficient resources available to the workers and in order to meet the supply demands for services increase. Furthermore, the goals set out by agencies are rather ambiguous and the measurement of performance achievement turns out to be impossible to measure. In addition, clients tend to be mostly non-voluntary. (Lipsky, 1980, p.27)

Case Description

In the Munro Review of Child Protection (Munro, 2011), recommendations are set out to improve upon, aiming to reform the child protection system within the United Kingdom. These recommendations are designed to eliminate the over-bureaucratization and the need for compliance and a shift towards more focus on children, hereby exploring issues and assessing the effectiveness of the received aid.

The report sums up a total of fifteen recommendations, each of those belonging to a particular subject (Munro, 2011). However, for the purpose of this paper I will only examine those that are set out in chapters three, six and seven, providing three recommendations that comply with the theoretical framework of SLB by Lipsky (1980), highlighting the effect of these propositions on the work of the child protection services.

Chapter three ‘A system that values professional expertise’ symbolizes the difficulties in identifying the constraints faced by social workers and their managers. Many experience that the practice puts a heavy emphasis on compliance with management criteria and guidance. Consequently, they fail to follow the effectiveness of helping children. The recommendations value a clearer focus and a revision of the guidance. Chapter six ‘Developing social work expertise’ argues that an increase in expertise of employers and individuals will positively influence the relationship with children. Chapter seven ‘The organizational context: supporting effective social work practice’ addresses the importance of continuous reviewing (Munro, 2011).

In the upcoming section I will describe the three recommendations before returning to this issue in relation to Lipsky’s Street Level Bureaucracy in the analysis.

First, recommendation thirteen originating from chapter seven revolves around the organizational context. More specifically, it suggests that ongoing reviewing and redesigning are significant factors in the successful functioning of the child protection services in the UK. Additionally, the effectiveness of the service will increase and thus affect the social conditions of children and families (Munro, 2011).

Secondly, emerging from chapter six of the Munro review, recommendation twelve considers the notion of the cooperation between the so-called HEIs, higher education institutions, and companies. The aim of this recommendation in question is to prepare upcoming social workers for their future careers within the Child Protection Services. This cooperation will thus lead to better practice placements and the application for particular ‘teaching organization’ status. Furthermore, these high quality placements will determine the relationship between HEIs and employers (Munro, 2011).

Third and finally, recommendation four as set out in chapter three focuses on the collection of information by local authorities and their partners. A combination of information collected by both actors will have positive effects on the subsequent evaluations of performances (Munro, 2011).


It is of importance to see whether these recommendations, as discussed above, show any resemblance or a conflict to the Framework of Street-Level Bureaucracy as set out by Lipsky. In the Munro Review it is clearly stated that the recommendations are not to be considered as separate entities, but rather reviewed as a whole (Munro, 2011, p.10). Therefore, the analysis will seek to address the aforementioned recommendations four, twelve and thirteen accordingly. A comparison will be made between the dilemmas social workers in the UK face and those of the street-level bureaucrats; are they reconcilable or conflicting? Moreover, do these three suggestions contribute to solving the dilemmas street-level bureaucrats face on a daily basis?

Judging from the outlook of Street-Level Bureaucracy, the recommendations posed for social workers within child protection services in the Munro Review comply with the framework initiated by Lipsky (1980).When trying to assess the work by Lipsky on SLB and the Munro report it seems as though both of them share the same problems and dilemmas. The problems and challenges faced by street-level bureaucrats and social workers seem to overlap one another rather than contradict. One clear example revolves around the lack of resources when carrying out jobs in child protection services as mentioned in the final report by Munro. The exact same applies to the street-level workers as Lipsky dedicates a whole chapter to the problem of resources in his book on Street-Level Bureaucracy (Lipsky, 1980), also described in the conceptual framework. The reconciliation of both seems to live up in general, however, is this still the case when analyzing the separate recommendations?

The Munro review, as discussed in chapter three (recommendation four) aspires a more professional perspective when it comes to the child-centred system in order to preserve a clear focus on the effectiveness of helping children. Recommendation four promotes a more bottom up approach when it comes to implementing the suggestions set out by the Munro report. A combination is needed of locally- as well as nationally collected information to accomplish the goals mentioned in the recommendation. This indicates that a level of professionalism is required at the lower levels, or as Lipsky puts it, at the street-level as it will guarantee a focus of all parties involved. Lipsky argues that the limits on bureaucracy contribute to the debate that street-level bureaucrats are in fact professionals. This professionalization starts with the social worker who feels the need to act when control cannot be imposed from the outside (higher level). Some form of self-monitoring replaces the control exercised by top-level managers, underlining the fact that street-level bureaucrats exercise autonomy. (Lipsky, 1980, p.201) It becomes evident that the suggestion as described above parallels Lipsky’s way of thinking.

Recommendation twelve applauds cooperation between HEIs and social work students to enhance preparation for entering the real world of the child protection services. This demonstrates a compatibility with Lipsky’s foundation of Street-Level Bureaucracy. When addressing the sustainment of SLB and leadership, Lipsky mentions that in the future a New Street-Level Bureaucracy needs to be developed with particular attention to teaching and practice. The new street-level bureaucrat acknowledges the value of teaching as well as the practice involved in public services. According to Lipsky (1980, p.209):

“Some of their teaching ought to be done not in universities but in the field, where there is opportunity for constant confrontation with the realities of practice.”

Finally, recommendation thirteen stresses the importance of continuous reviewing and redesigning. The aforementioned suggestion described the New Street-Level Bureaucracy as a future for SLB. Lipsky also acknowledges that, in order to innovate, the development of inquiry and criticism should be kept in place. He also emphasizes that these processes are of an ongoing nature to promote continuous review moments. Both the Munro Review (Munro, 2011) and Lipksy state that these moments of review share a collective approach for improving the performance of street-level bureaucrats and Munro’s social workers (Lipsky, 1980, p. 209).

Recommendation thirteen appears most feasible from the perspective of the street-level bureaucrat as they illustrate that regular interaction between themselves and citizens is crucial, hereby combatting a problem faced by many street-level bureaucrats. Both recommendations four and twelve are also feasible but not in the short-term.

Judging from the above, the recommendations as put forward by Munro (2011) appear compatible with the conceptualization of Lipsky (1980). However, does this hold true for all recommendations? A brief check of the recommendations illustrates that some divergence is virtually nonexistent, as the ideas of the suggestions can be reconciled with Lipsky’s argumentation concerning Street-Level Bureaucracy.


Street-Level Bureaucracy as introduced by Lipsky in the 1980s sheds an interesting light on the involvement of these bureaucrats on policy implementation and their influence. In the final report of the Munro Review of Child Protection a total of fifteen recommendations are presented in order to increase the effectiveness of the child-centred system. Essential are the social workers executing their duties in an over-bureaucratized environment according to Professor Eileen Munro. The need for more involvement and management at the front line might show a resemblance to Lipsky’s SLB Framework at first sight. However, the need to examine this more closely is the aim of the paper. Do social workers of child protective services in the United Kingdom show a resemblance to the Street-Level Bureaucracy Framework as coined by Lipsky or not? In other words, are they in conflict or compatible?

While it might seem the case that they are compatible at the first glance, the three recommendations chosen from the Munro Review should display the same in order to demonstrate this resemblance. It is evident from the analysis that the three separate recommendations present a relationship between the social workers in child protective services and the framework of SLB by Lipsky. Especially recommendations twelve and thirteen are mentioned precisely by Lipsky as well when examining his book. Hence, the outcome is therefore simple as the relationship is apparent.

As a result, the recommendations appear feasible from the perspective of SLB. In particular recommendation thirteen because continuous reviewing is something that can be applied directly generating results in the short-term.


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