Date of Award

Fall 12-2019

Degree Type


Degree Name


Degree Program

Urban Studies


Planning and Urban Studies

Major Professor

Dr. Robert Sabin Montjoy

Second Advisor

Dr. Christine Day

Third Advisor

Dr. David Gladstone


This study examines the applicability of Michael Lipsky’s (1980) concept of “street-level bureaucracy” to the profession of social work in 2019. Street-level bureaucrats are public service workers “who interact with citizens in the regular course of their jobs; have significant independence in decision making, and potentially have extensive impact on the lives of their citizens” (Lipsky, 1980:3). They are faced with uncertainties in their work related to inadequate resources, unclear policies, and caseloads/workloads that defy what may be possible to achieve by any one worker. Workers develop routines and “coping mechanisms,” to manage their environments. The routines that they develop then become effective public policy for their clients.

The street-level bureaucracy theory has been widely applied, but generally with the assumption that street-level bureaucrats are homogenous across occupations and settings. Recent research suggests the need for more nuanced approaches, especially with regard to the effects of professionalism, individual characteristics of workers, and the variety of circumstances in which they interact with clients. Yet most research utilizes small numbers of cases, making it difficult to measure differences among types of workers. The present study addresses that gap with a large survey of social workers in Louisiana. Findings show that these street-level bureaucrats do exercise discretion, but circumstances in which they do so vary significantly, even within a single profession. Further, ways in which they exercise discretion differ from those described by Lipsky. Instead of using coping mechanisms to buffer themselves from an otherwise overwhelming environment, the respondents in this study report consultation with peers and management to find ways to serve client needs. These findings have implications for both the study of street-level bureaucracy and the practice of social work.

Keywords: Discretion, decision-making, street-level bureaucracy, social work, coping mechanisms


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