Street justice through social media: the new bureaucratic accountability

English: a bureaucrat t-shirt

English: a bureaucrat t-shirt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The customer service angle to social media complaints are well known. People use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to complain about customer service. They don’t like the product or service so they complain publicly to get somethign done. The process is now coming to local government. I do not mean simply customer service. I mean something different. I think we are seeing social media being used to create bureaucratic accountability. As I wrote previously, the web changes our relationship with memory and allows a new form of accountability. Here the focus is on street level bureaucrats. Those workers who fill what Michael Lipsky called the street level bureaucracy.

Lipsky described street level bureaucrats, as teachers, fire-fighters, policemen, and social workers. They are people on the frontline who make decisions with limited information and time and apply their discretion to apply the law and enforcing rules. He was particularly interested in how all these workers used their discretion to simplify their job to meet the demands on the street. The discretion, though, creates the perception of un-accountability.[1] To the citizen, formal accountability appears to be missing. The street level decision, made with limited information and time, may not match what the formal rules require. As a result, the citizen wants accountability at the street level and they turn to social media.

Street level accountability because the press are uninterested.

Social media is the preferred outlet because the press appear unable or unwilling to challenge the organisation in the way the public would like. In the past, newspapers promoted causes and conducted campaigns on behalf the public. Harold Evans grew his newspaper reputation on developing and managing newspaper campaigns. He pursued campaigns the public wanted. Today the same campaigning seems to missing from most local media. As a result, social media platforms allow people to launch their own campaigns and publish their own account of events. They can challenge the street level bureaucrat in their work and their decisions, which changes the way they communicate with the organisation.

You are directly accountable to the public through social media: are you ready?

The customer or disgruntled citizen now has the capacity to tell their story and make their case a cause or a campaign. Where a journalist may have written a story and the organisation responded, today the newspaper is no longer the preferred approach. In their place, the person develops their own campaign and fight their own causes through social media. They will hold the Minister, the council, the company or the bureaucrat to account with their own story. The service users or other customers will work to challenge the organisation. The public may be told something, but they will challenge it and question it. They want more than an explanation. They want people, not just the organisation, to be accountable for their work.  As a result, the organisation and the staff have to be prepared or able to respond.  If such campaigns are simply ignored or if they are not engaged in a serious way, the problem does not go away.  The problem is not feeding the trolls but developing a way to have a dialogue with the public.

A policy making issue, not a media issue.

What we see though are organisations ill-equipped to respond because they confuse a policy issue with a media issue. They seem to have overlooked the street level bureaucrat’s policy making role. They see the issue as a media driven and not a policy making issue. They believe that if they have good news and have a good relationship with the local editor, they can manage the media coverage. To an extent that is true, but it is no longer relevant. The public are using Twitter and Facebook to challenge policy making. They challenge the street level bureaucrat who is reflecting the constraints created by the organisation’s processes and rules. The citizen sees arbitrary or unjust decisions. The street level bureaucrat is seeing short cuts and simplified ways of working to get the job done under limited time and information. A gap between discretion and accountability emerges that cannot be bridged by positive media coverage.

Accountability is an essential requirement of public management in the democratic state. Yet, all too often, bureaucratic discretion is the nemesis of accountability.

We see examples of this at work in Barnet, Wirral, and Solicitors from Hell. They attacked what they perceived to be institutional injustice or arbitrary decisions. They wanted the organisation and the bureaucrat held to account. Those sites and what they have achieved are only a harbinger.

The more street level bureaucrats are needed, the more the average citizens will create or support campaigns as a way of balancing the power between themselves and the bureaucrat. They will see this as a way to amplify their voice and leverage their influence. If their MP, their local councillor and the press do not show the same interest in accountability, they will seek an alternative. As a result, they perceive their only option for accountability and justice for their cause is to create a campaign.

What do organisations and bureaucrats need to do?

First, they are going to need to improve their customer service skills. They need to make sure they have a solid training to show that have good customer service to avoid disgruntled customers.

Second, they are going to have to develop their skills to explain decisions. It will not be enough to say “statute” allows this or we are authorised to do this. They will have to educate the public about what they are trying to do and why it is needed and wanted by the public. Bureaucrats will have to develop their skills at explaining their decisions and their work.

Third, the organisations will have to check and adjust their policy making process. They will have to find a way to reconcile discretion and accountability of street level bureaucrats. The organisation’s policy making has to adapt to the street level to explain how they work in the public interest.

Fourth, organisations will have to adapt their corporate communication styles and their approach to complaints. For example the work at Comms2.0, shows us how corporate communications are changing. What is needed though is for organisations to adapt their policy making system. In many ways, they will need to allow staff to be able to justify or tell their side of the story. The days of a monologue or the anonymous press release are disappearing.

Finally, they will have to change how they deal with accountability for street level bureaucracy. The solution, as some argue, is not more rules and procedures. Instead, it is to involve street level bureaucrats in the process that shapes their context. In that setting, decisions have more legitimacy because they are connected to the wider organisational context and not being seen as an arbitrary result. At the same time, though, the organisation has to be able to respond and support its street level bureaucrats. If they simply treat them as “rogue employees” or ignore the culture by closing ranks, then the system will become increasingly dysfunctional and the public will increasingly turn to social media to find accountability. However, no one has solved this problem. As Evelyn Z. Brodkin says:

The challenge of managing street-level discretion lies at the heart of the search for strategies of administrative oversight and control. How can management promote accountability without deadening responsiveness and undermining the application of professional judgment on which management also depends?

What we are beginning to see, though, is how social media is beginning to create that accountability through responsiveness by requiring organisations, and ultimately the people, to justify their decisions and work to a wider audience. Are you and your organisation ready for this change? Are you able to have a dialogue rather than a monologue with your customers?

[1] For an good discussion of street level bureaucracy and accountability I suggest these articles. Accountability in Street-Level Organizations Evelyn Z. Brodkin Intl Journal of Public Administration , 31: 317–336, 2008 and Street level Bureaucracy and Public Accountability Peter Hupe and Michael Hill Public Administration Vol. 85, No. 2, 2007 (279–299) See also this Youtube video by Michael Lipsky on street level bureaucrats.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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7 Responses to Street justice through social media: the new bureaucratic accountability

  1. Wirral In It Together says:

    Thanks for the link to my site Lawrence. There is no dialogue here yet…. from unaccountable abusers of power
    Just the tired old monologue of “the one way street” with failed transparency, default concealment and ignored emails – all as standard.

    • Thanks for the comment and for reading my blog. I thought your site illustrated part of the point I had tried to express. I would not say the dialogue is happenning only that it is now a changed landscape. A monologue is no longer possible because people can organise and publish their own view of the official events. In this, the organisations will find that they have to enter a dialogue either directly or indirectly if only by their actions rather than their words.

      Good luck with your work and your site.

  2. Wirral In It Together says:

    Thanks for your good wishes.
    [Long post]
    So they’re slamming the shutters down. There is a looooooong way to go !

    • Paul,
      You wrote a very good post, which is better suited for your blog rather than as a comment.

      What might be best is if you post it to your blog and then we can discuss it.

      Thanks again for the positive comment.


  3. goggzilla says:

    Looking forward to reading more!

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