Why Bureaucrats Don't Seem to Care

A researcher’s reflection on eight months of observing workers at an anti-poverty agency

Randy Faris / Corbis / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

In 1987, the software company Infocom released Bureaucracy, a text-based game scripted by Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Imagine you’ve just landed a great new job and are about to be sent to Paris for a training seminar and vacation. “What could possibly go wrong?,” the brochure accompanying the game asks. “The answer, of course, is everything.”

It all starts when your bank mishandles your change-of-address form. One thing leads to another and soon you find yourself drowning in rules that are confusing at first sight and plainly absurd upon closer consideration. You learn, for instance, that “you must file your change-of-address form at least two months, but no sooner than six weeks, before your moving date.” Trying to make sense of that, you are left scurrying for the help of customer-service representatives, who are “frequently available” during normal business hours. All the while, the game tracks fluctuations in your blood pressure. Let it rise above a certain level, and you may die.

Bureaucracy is so baffling that it can be funny—until of course it isn’t. Millions of people rely on public assistance to make ends meet. When rent, medical insurance, and personal dignity are in the balance, absurdity stops being comical and starts being terrifying.

The popular conception of bureaucracy is familiar. There are of course the rules: innumerable, entangled, often impenetrable. There are the stiff waiting rooms: white, fluorescent-lit, with rows of identical chairs and gray partition panels. Above all, perhaps, there are the people, the infamous bureaucrats. They are the supposedly human face of the state—cold, distant, unconcerned. Of all the ills of bureaucracy, they might be the worst. They look without seeing, they listen without hearing, and they proclaim decisions that can change people’s lives with the indifference of a butcher slicing a piece of steak.

Or so one might think. In preparation for my book, When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency, I spent eight months as a volunteer receptionist at a publicly funded anti-poverty agency, observing how my coworkers did their jobs. As a nonprofit contractor for the state, the agency helps low-income families apply for a range of public programs, such as food stamps, health services, fuel assistance, and early-childhood education. This is the new face of the administrative state: private provision of services with public funding and oversight.

Located in a large city in the northeastern United States, the agency operates a network of 16 neighborhood centers, each modest in size, but serving collectively close to 100,000 families annually. The center to which I was assigned employed eight to 10 full-time caseworkers, and relied on the unpaid, part-time support of an equal number of volunteers and interns. It catered primarily to African American and Hispanic clients, reflecting the demographics of the surrounding area.

While working there, I learned that the routine of everyday work at the front lines of public service is not quite what it seems from the outside. It is neither as simple, repetitive, nor rule-governed as one might believe. If frontline work is soul-sucking, it is less because bureaucrats must mechanically apply rules than because they must shoulder, day in and day out, the weight of difficult discretionary decisions which most people have the luxury to ignore.

Frontline bureaucrats are often portrayed as unthinking automata, yet they are in fact vested with a substantial margin of discretion. This is where the challenge of implementing policy starts. It is not that rules are absent; on the contrary, they abound. But they are often sufficiently ambiguous that they lend themselves to various plausible interpretations, or so numerous that they conflict with one another. When this is the case, bureaucrats must exert independent judgment to figure out what to do. If they were to stop doing so and adhere religiously to the scripts provided to them, public-service agencies would come to a halt.

Some uses of discretion are technical. In welfare agencies, for instance, caseworkers must draw on their expertise to determine which work-training program is most likely to be successful for a particular client. Other uses of discretion, however, are normative, or value-laden. Did clients have a “good reason” to miss their appointment? Did they exert “sufficient effort” to look for a job? Questions such as these call for moral or political judgment. And the stakes are high: When one is dealing with vulnerable clients, erring on one side or the other can make the difference between someone having food on the table, a safe place to sleep, and a bit of dignity left or not.

The moral dimension of street-level work has two sides, then. Empowering in one respect, it elevates bureaucrats beyond the tedium of applying rules, and imparts gravity to what they do. Yet it also makes them complicit in the shortcomings of the system they embody, for they become implicated in it not just as operators, but as thinking and reasoning agents as well. With this comes a more acute sense of personal responsibility.

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Generally speaking, public-service agencies combine three core functions: processing clients, providing services, and applying the rules evenly. Bureaucrats must process incoming cases by sorting people as efficiently as possible into pre-defined administrative categories. They must provide clients with services that are tailored to their needs, taking into account their particular life circumstances. They must, finally, enforce program requirements and eligibility criteria meticulously, treating everyone impartially.

Taken individually, each of these demands is sensible. Who wouldn’t want the provision of public services to be efficient, responsive, and fair? Combined together, however, they often yield conflicting guidance. When resources are limited, they give rise to endless, morally draining dilemmas.

Consider the following two examples, which I witnessed unfolding before me, and imagine that you are the bureaucrat. It is the end of fuel-assistance season, and your office, which is already understaffed in normal circumstances, is crowded with applicants who need help keeping their houses warm during the winter. Most are in precarious situations, and many have taken time off from work to be here. Providing them with timely service is of the essence.

The client you are currently assisting, however, has arrived with incomplete paperwork and seems too confused and agitated to comprehend the instructions you give him. In leafing through the documents he did bring, you notice that he is eligible for other services, and urgently in need of them. You can devote the next hour to him or to those in the waiting room. Do you delve into the case? Or do you send the client off and proceed with the others, but risk releasing him into the world without the support he needs? The uncertainty gnaws at you, for as one caseworker put it to me, “We just don’t know who can get things done on their own and who can’t.”

And what about the young mother who has just fled an abusive relationship and is asking you to refer her to a shelter? The only one you could find is on the other side of the city from where her mother, whom she must also care for, lives. If you were to pick up the phone and make the rounds again, you might, just perhaps, be able to find something closer. However, it’s almost the end of the day and there are mountains of paperwork left to tackle so that benefits can actually be processed. What’s more, your boss has already told you that you shouldn’t prioritize domestic-violence cases because other centers specialize in them. If you set a precedent, who knows how many others you’ll have in the future. Do you grab the receiver or move on to the next person?

In cases such as these, frontline workers are forced to choose between an option that is bad and one that may be even worse. They have to make such difficult decisions, moreover, in view of the very people who will suffer the consequences, and watch as disappointment and despair color their faces. The clients bold enough to vent their frustration might prefer to direct it at their elected representatives, but in that moment, the only person they can scold is the one in front of them: the bureaucrat.

How do workers cope with that? Some, understandably, cannot or will not take it. “It used to feel like we were doing something for clients,” a woman named Angela Neville said to The Guardian last year in explaining why she left her job as an employment service advisor in the UK. “Now it [was doing] something to them.”

Others stay, but become desensitized, turning the blame onto clients. “Some staff, they’re just so burnt out,” a colleague confided, “that they feel like people just make up stories to get things.”

Others learn to don a professional mask, which they then take off, with difficulty, at the end of the workday. Once I caught a glimpse of this myself: A caseworker I had never seen smiling suddenly brightened up, his face transformed beyond recognition. A relative had entered the office. That is when I realized he had been compartmentalizing all along.

Others still, the majority perhaps, seek out a delicate balance. They carefully guard their emotional exposure to clients for fear of depleting themselves entirely, saving themselves up for the cases that truly need their attention. “Sometimes,” a caseworker told me by way of introduction to the agency, “it’s good to engage yourself fully with clients, because they don’t get someone who can listen to them. … But in my role, I’ve learned to not get attached with a lot of folks.”

Seen through the eyes of clients, the result of these various coping strategies may, in most cases, look the same: an air of indifference. Yet this indifference is misleading, not only because it covers up multiple types of responses, but also because it often originates from the opposite inclination. Bureaucrats end up appearing indifferent not because they are uncaring, but as an adaptive response to the fact that they do, or at least at some point did, care.

The boundaries that bureaucrats erect are of course not impermeable, and sometimes the professional mask drops. I witnessed caseworkers lose their composure while listening to their clients’ harrowing tales. I also saw barriers break down when clients departed from traditional scripts by cracking a joke, asking a probing question, or demanding a justification. Occasionally, they may catch workers entirely off guard, like when a client in his mid-50s, sporting a colorful Peruvian poncho and a pillbox hat, rose up from his seat in the waiting room and asked me, without any apparent reason, “In school, did you read Hemingway?” To which I answered earnestly, “No, but we read Steinbeck.”

These moments are important because in them a genuine human encounter transpires, and reveals what lies beneath the fronts that people work so hard to maintain. And indeed, the front lines of public service are not just a theater of cruelty. They are also a site of dedication, of hard work and sacrifice, where despite all odds the ideal of public service continues to live and inspire.

This owes much to the ingenuity of frontline workers, who make the most of the limited resources they have. They learn to manage their emotions and to live with fragmented psyches. They consult one another to find new ways to prioritize tasks. They tweak rules, interpret them creatively, and become more judicious at making exceptions. They recharge at the end of a draining workday by joking about the motivational poster on the wall—“Purpose is focusing the full power of what you are on what you want to achieve”—not sure whether the advice it proffers is vapid or foolish.

But so long as the demands placed on them far outweigh the resources they have at their disposal, there is a limit to what bureaucrats can do. To clients, frontline workers may appear as powerful gatekeepers who control access to public-assistance programs. Within their own agencies, however, they are typically low-ranking employees who are rarely consulted on matters of policy or management. They are frequently reduced, as such, to being front-row witnesses to some of society’s most pressing problems without being able to offer more than patchwork solutions.

Under such conditions, how could one not project an air of indifference? Affecting distance helps bureaucrats save face and retain an appearance of control. It allows them to set expectations, signaling to clients that they risk being disappointed if they hope for too much. Most of all, indifference enables bureaucrats to protect themselves from being worn down by the strain of everyday work, for they will have to return the next day and do it all over again.

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Last year, the British filmmaker Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for I, Daniel Blake, a bleak portrait of the U.K. benefits system and its increasing reliance on sanctioning. The movie documents an ailing widower’s failing struggle to obtain, with dignity, the assistance to which he is entitled by law. It is a hard sight to bear.

Yet if Loach had taken his camera across the counter, trading the perspective of claimants for that of bureaucrats, he would have found anguish there as well. The personal tragedies that result from public-policy choices—the clients who fall between the cracks; those who need help but cannot get it—are incidents that ordinary citizens might have the luxury to ignore. For frontline bureaucrats, however, this is the stuff of everyday work. In a democracy, these bureaucrats make hard decisions in the name of citizens so that the latter do not have to.

If bureaucrats appear distant and unconcerned, if they seem cold and expressionless, it is important to remember that they are like that in part because of the policy choices that were made by their fellow citizens through the democratic process, and the meager resources that were placed at their disposal. To express sympathy for bureaucrats is not to condone the system of public assistance they represent, but to acknowledge that it does not leave them unscathed either.