The forthcoming article “A Public Ethics of Care for Policy Implementation” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12487) by Daniel Engster is summarized by the author below.

A Public Ethics of Care for Policy Implementation

Dealing with government bureaucrats can be downright unpleasant at times. We may feel unheard, unseen, disrespected, and subject to seemingly arbitrary rules. How do these experiences mesh with the ideals of liberal-democratic government – particularly the notion that government should be attentive and responsive to the people and not govern in autocratic ways? 

In A Public Ethics of Care for Policy Implementation,” I suggest it is not. Liberal democracies have generally assumed that hierarchical, rule-bound, and impartial “Weberian” bureaucratic ethics is best suited for carrying out policies through the public bureaucracy. The idea is that bureaucrats will support liberal-democratic ideals by faithfully and mechanically enforcing the laws and policies enacted by the people’s democratically-elected representatives.  

The problem with this perspective is that bureaucrats invariably do have some discretion in applying laws and policies to individuals. This point, emphasized by Michael Lipsky in Street-Level Bureaucracy, has become a staple of research on policy implementation. Street-level bureaucrats, including social workers, child protection workers, police officers, municipal judges, and others all must decide which laws and policies apply to which particular individuals and cases, when, and how. Discretion is inherent in their jobs.  

Rule-bound and impartial bureaucratic ethics encourage administrators to disclaim this discretion for a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to policy implementation. This is one of reasons dealing with government bureaucrats can be so frustrating. They claim they are “just following the rules” but we intuitively understand that they are actually following one interpretation of the rules and applying it without regard to our unique circumstances.  

If the discretion inherent in policy implementation is to be made consistent with liberal-democratic principles, I argue it must be subjected to democratic sanctioning. I propose in my article a public ethics of care as an alternative to the existing rule-bound, impartial bureaucratic ethics for achieving this democratic sanctioning and manifesting liberal principles of limited and responsive government in the public bureaucracy. A public ethics of care provides a model for the attentive and responsive use of discretion within the law by encouraging bureaucrats to relate to individuals as persons and work with them in appropriate ways to apply laws and policies to their circumstances. It can be achieved by emphasizing this approach within the administrative culture and changing promotion and review guidelines to reflect caring values. 

Integrating a public ethics of care into public administrations is important because, as Lipsky argued, individuals experience state power primarily through their encounters with street-level bureaucrats. If street-level bureaucrats exercise their powers in inattentive, unresponsive, and domineering ways, this is how many citizens will experience the liberal-democratic state.

About the Author: Daniel Engster is Professor, Hobby School of Public Affairs, The University of Houston. His research “A Public Ethics of Care for Policy Implementation” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12487) is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.