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Whether on a patrol beat, in social service offices, or in public school classrooms, street-level workers continually confront rules in relation to their own beliefs about the people they encounter. Cops, Teachers, Counselors is the first major study of street-level bureaucracy to rely on storytelling. Steven Maynard-Moody and Michael Musheno collect the stories told by these workers in order to analyze the ways that they ascribe identities to the people they encounter and use these identities to account for their own decisions and actions. The authors show us how the world of street-level work is defined by the competing tensions of law abidance and cultural abidance in a unique study that finally allows cops, teachers, and counselors to voice their own views of their work.
Steven Maynard-Moody is Director of the Policy Research Institute and Professor of Public Administration at the University of Kansas.
Michael Musheno is Professor of Justice and Policy Studies at Lycoming College and Professor Emeritus of Justice Studies, Arizona State University.
|Publisher:||University of Michigan Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
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Cops, Teachers, Counselors: Stories from the Front Lines of Public Service
By Michael C. Musheno
University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2003 Michael C. Musheno
All right reserved.
1. Dealing with Faces
I can't say I follow the rules completely. I don't. But I interpret them in each situation and make the best call. Yeah, from my own value system, I suppose.
--western police officer
I don't use the cookbook method. It's all based on what people need to become as independently employed as possible. You know, not everyone requires support for eight or ten months, a year, two years, whatever.
--western vocational rehabilitation counselor
I deal with the kids one to one, whereas the administration deals with the kids as a whole. [The administrators] have to look at what is good for the building as a whole, meaning the 623 students we have here. I look at it on a case-by-case, class-by-class basis. [The administrators] are consistently telling me I have to look at it the other way, and I never will because I deal with the personalities, the faces, the parents, and the problems on a one-to-one basis, and sometimes what's good for a kid is not what's good as a general principle for the entire building or another school. I look at it on a kid-by-kid basis. I really don't care what the building policy is.
--midwestern middle school teacherA western police officer asserts that both rules and her "own value system" are in play in deciding what to do. A western vocational rehabilitation counselor also acknowledges rules, referencing a "cookbook method" of decision making, but points to "what people need" as central to doing her job. A midwestern middle school teacher reveals a clash of values with policy and administration. The administration makes decisions on what is best for the student body, or what the teacher calls "the building." In contrast, he "deals with faces"--the faces of kids and parents--and makes his decisions on a "kid-by-kid basis."
These are the voices of street-level or front-line government workers. They convey a strong orientation toward faces, or who people are, and toward the workers' own beliefs, their value systems, in explaining their decision making. At the same time, these workers make it clear that policies, rules, and administrative oversight pervade their work and are ever present in their calculations about what to do. Whether on a patrol beat, in the offices of social services, or at the front of public school classrooms, street-level workers' beliefs about people continually rub against policies and rules.
We refer to the demand that workers apply law, rules, and administrative procedures to people's behavior as the expectation of law abidance. We reference the orientation of workers to concentrate on their judgments of who people are, their perceived identities and moral character, as the desire for cultural abidance. We argue that law abidance and cultural abidance coexist in the everyday world of street-level work and that their coexistence defines the tensions of street-level work, revealing a deeper understanding of street-level decision making, or why street-level workers do what they do.
The dual existence of law and cultural abidance is evident in other studies but is rarely a central theme of works that focus on street-level decision making. We think this is the case because the coexistence of these two phenomena unsettles a prevailing narrative about the state and governance. This prevailing narrative--what we call the state-agent narrative--portrays a democratic state as an edifice built on law and predictable procedures that insure that like cases will be treated alike. In this formulation, deviations from law are allowable only if workers adapt law to the circumstances of cases in a manner consistent with policy and hierarchical authority. Such deviations are referred to as discretionary decision making, and the apparatus of public administration is designed to confine and channel discretion to secure equal treatment to the extent possible.
Given the prevailing narrative, scholars and the news media alike focus on the most disturbing qualities of workers practicing cultural abidance or operating more from beliefs and identities than from law and behavior. One of the most recent revelations of the destructive elements of cultural abidance has been the discovery of patterns of racial and ethnic profiling in police officers' decisions (both individually and in groups) regarding whose cars to stop and search on U.S. highways.
Given such revelations, it follows that any and all reliance on moral beliefs and identities destroys citizens' lives and threatens governance as we know it.
To represent attention to moral beliefs and identities as part of the everyday decision making of street-level workers asks scholars, the media, and governmental practitioners to question what they have invested in the prevailing narrative. It even asks people to accept some degree of disorder, if only temporarily. To ease the inevitable discomfort, we try to bring order to workers' everyday attention to cultural abidance by offering a second narrative--what we call the citizen-agent narrative--and show the complexity of its practices and effects. Moreover, we demonstrate that this narrative operates in close proximity to, although often in tension with, the prevailing state-agent narrative.
In this less settled state of affairs, some citizens receive unauthorized but extraordinary and life-enhancing help from risk-taking street-level workers. Other citizens, based on different judgments, receive what the rules and procedures allow--no more but no less. Still others are excluded from help and social benefits or, worse, are maligned and abused by front-line workers and the system in which they work. Authorized or prohibited, legitimate or illegitimate, helpful or destructive, street-level cultural judgments are an irreducible element in governing the modern state. Our task is to reveal the patterns of decision making that emerge when both law and beliefs as well as behavior and identities matter in the everyday world of street-level work.
This book is based on the voices of street-level or front-line workers as expressed in their own accounts or stories. We collected and retell a wide range of work stories: stories of encounters with difficult people and dangerous criminals; stories of success and failure; stories of frustration and fear; and stories of conflict with citizens, supervisors, and other agencies. Some of these stories are long and complex, while others are brief and one dimensional. Some stories provide what appear to be accurate accounts of events, while others are exaggerated and fictionalized. All of the stories were prompted by a straightforward question: we asked workers to tell us stories about how and when their own beliefs about fairness and unfairness helped them make decisions. We encouraged them to tell stories about times when their beliefs conflicted with formal and informal agency policies as well as times when policies facilitated workers' reliance on their own beliefs. Finally, we invited stories of worker relations as well as those that involved citizens, students, and clients. Story 1.1, like so many street-level work stories, puts a face on public service as social and cultural practice.
Story 1.1. Midwestern Vocational Rehabilitation: "A Happy Ending"
This is a happy-ending story. This is one of those that poor [supervisor] would probably just faint away dead. This is one [the supervisor] does not want to know about. . . .
This is about a lady with severe chronic mental illness. She came through the mental health center through the support of an employment grant.
This is somebody who had been Miss Texas or Miss Oklahoma or something--you know, a real high achiever and then bang. I don't remember if it was depression or what happened. Well, anyway, she ended up in a series of mental hospitals. Somewhere along there she was married and had a little boy and was divorced. So now she is in [midwestern city], she is a single mom living with zero money practically in a real bad part of town with this little guy.
And she worked so hard to put herself back together. She was doing so well. She had picked up an associate's degree in electronics something, computer something, but had never actually worked with the degree or anything because of her mental illness.
Meanwhile, back at home in the neighborhood, her little boy was probably the only white guy in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood bullies were just beating the crap out of this little guy. The [other] parents were like, "So what?" . . . So all these other stresses were coming back on her. She couldn't move until she got a job, and she can't get a job.
Somehow she caught a ride to [nearby town] and interviewed. And they were hiring bachelor's degree people to do these jobs. . . . Somehow she waltzed in there and convinced them that she could do the job, . . . and they hired her, which was amazing in itself. And plus she had done it on her own, which was even more wonderful, except she didn't have a car.
And now she found somebody that had a good dependable older little Toyota for like $1,500. Well, if you have no money, $1,500 might as well be $15 million. Somehow, the mental health center could come up with $400, just kind of seed money. So I came up with $340 for maintenance, but that still left a bunch.
So we got creative. I wrote up enough money to cover insurance, car tags, and fees, and, you know, called them interview clothing and gas, knowing good and well that these are things she is going to need but the money is really for the car. So she went and bought her car.
So she finally moved . . . and lived happily ever after. Her little boy is still in school and is doing great. She has advanced into a better position. They love her.
Everything worked out beautiful, but if we had gone by the rule book, she would not have gotten the car, she would not have gotten the job. She would have ended up back in the hospital.
"A Happy Ending" is a simple story yet lays bare a number of the defining substantive features of the stories workers told us. First, many of the stories focus centrally on the construction of the character and identity of the citizen. In this case, the citizen is a client of a vocational rehabilitation counselor working out of an office in a core urban neighborhood. According to the worker, the client, a "lady," was a "high achiever" who came to him with a "severe chronic mental illness." Rather than focusing on her illness, the worker tells about the client's positive character traits. She is a responsible single mom with "a little boy" coping with hard living conditions, which are depicted in racialized terms: "her little boy was probably the only white guy in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood bullies were just beating the crap out of this little guy." Showing initiative, another positive character trait, she goes to a nearby town in search of work that can better her conditions and "amazingly" gets offered a job that reflects--even exceeds-- her earlier educational achievements.
Second, like many of the stories, the citizen's character is entwined with the worker's decision making. A worker judges a citizen, often using mainstream beliefs about good and bad character, and acts to reinforce that judgment. In this case, the judgment is highly positive, and the worker's action is strongly proactive, reinforcing the citizen's identity as a responsible parent seeking work to overcome hard times and harsh living conditions.
Third, policies, rules, and administration are depicted as barriers to reinforcing judgments about character and identity or as tools for actualizing those judgments. In this case, the woman needs a car to secure meaningful work and improve her family's conditions, but the rules stand in the way. The worker "writes up money" to cover the purchase of the vehicle while reporting that the money will be used for items such as clothing and gasoline that can be purchased legitimately for a person with a disability who has secured work. The worker bends the rules to help a client of good character.
Fourth, the stories reveal that street-level workers are highly sensitive to coworkers and immediate supervisors, including those in their work sites and related agencies. In "A Happy Ending," the worker gains the support of a coworker in the mental health center and realizes that what he is doing cannot be officially acknowledged by his supervisor even though the supervisor might be supportive. It is one of those actions that would probably make the "poor supervisor . . . just faint away dead." While coworkers and supervisors are intimate characters in the stories told by street-level workers, the higher echelons of the agencies and the more formal elements of policy and procedures embedded in the organizations are lumped together as "the system," out of touch with the everyday realities of front-line work. Workers and their supervisors have to find ways to make this formal state apparatus work for them or face the task of subverting this apparatus, a responsibility they are willing to take on for the right citizen-client in the right circumstance.
Finally, the stories reveal that judgments and related actions are reached with confidence and an unblinking focus on the people who come to these workers. They deal with faces. Street-level workers do not question themselves with regard to the power they wield, nor do they seem disposed to weigh the broader implications of their actions. In this story, the worker tells us that "everything worked out beautiful." The worker alludes to a neighborhood under stress but does so only as a place that his client needs to exit if she and her boy are to be better off. Her deprivation is a function of illness and, as a result, the worker does not confront the issues of race and class that operate just under the surface of this story.
The work world of cops, teachers, and counselors is a baffling terrain, dense with law, rules, and procedures; bounded by overlapping hierarchal and agency relationships; and populated with the diverse and often hard to read faces of citizens, clients, supervisors, and coworkers. It is a world where identity and moral judgments are bound up with the quotidian work of the state. This is the front line of public service.
Excerpted from Cops, Teachers, Counselors: Stories from the Front Lines of Public Service by Michael C. Musheno Copyright © 2003 by Michael C. Musheno. Excerpted by permission.
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