Chapter OneSituated Bureaucrats Locating Identity in Catch-All Bureaucracies
At 3:25 p.m. on a blisteringly cold Friday in February 2006, Sharlene Roberts throws open the waiting room's heavy oak door, leans out, and summons her last client to join her in the labyrinthine client service area of the Staunton Office of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). Sharlene has worn a path around the office all day, with me hot on her heels, shuffling a parade of exhausted-looking mothers and bundled-up children into her cubicle, frequenting her supervisor's office to collect signatures of approval, and copying stacks of submitted documents bearing witness to her clients' progress in meeting their work, job training program attendance, or community service requirements. A nearby fax machine spits out paperwork from landlords testifying to who occupies their tenements, bank records exposing fledgling account balances, child immunization certifications, and other details of the lives of low-income families. When she isn't running around, Sharlene diligently wades through a tidal wave of information, feeding it into her computer as she sips on a large bottle of lemon-lime seltzer water.
Kim Purcell, the day's last client, gathers her son in her arms and follows Sharlene to the first empty cubicle in the client service area. Why bring her all the way back to my office if I don't need to? Sharlene reasons. "What can I do for you?" Sharlene asks as we take our seats. She silently braces herself, hoping for a quick resolution so she can return to the stack of still-to-be-processed papers that awaits her.
"My mother is in the mental hospital because my brother was abusive to her. He held a knife to me and my baby's throats. I can't stay there," Kim confesses stoically. "I'm requesting emergency housing. I called around to some shelters, and I couldn't find anything except all the way in Greenfield."
"Who is your worker?" Sharlene asks.
"You," Kim responds. With almost 150 current cases and some twenty recent applicants out gathering the verification documents needed to gain access to the welfare rolls, it isn't surprising that Sharlene doesn't know Kim.
It won't be easy to meet Kim's request for emergency housing at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. Clients such as Kim are typically sent to the homeless unit in a DTA office across town for placement, but few shelters will have beds available this late in the afternoon. Getting to the other office before 5 p.m. on public transportation will be an obstacle in itself. But Sharlene knows that she is required to do something, particularly since Kim reports that she fears for her safety.
Sharlene's supervisor, Ida Lubelle, agrees, but wonders whether finding a shelter is the solution. "Wait," Ida says before Sharlene leaves the impromptu consultation we left Kim to attend. "What about a restraining order? If she's on the lease and he's not, she can call the police and kick him out. Why hasn't she tried that? Somethin' ain't right. Are you sure it's not a boyfriend?"
Sharlene returns to Kim with the restraining order suggestion. Kim is reluctant to involve the police—what would happen to her brother? "Besides, when my mother gets out, she's going to let him back in the house, and then he's going to be mad."
When Kim's mother was admitted to the hospital, an assigned social worker contacted the Department of Social Services (DSS) to report elder abuse. DSS instructed Kim that she and her son could not continue to stay in the same home because her brother was a hazard to both of them. "I'm in danger of losing my child because of him," Kim laments.
"Okay, come with me," Sharlene commands. She escorts Kim to the enclosed cubicle of one of the agency's domestic violence (DV) specialists, introducing them and closing the door behind her as she turns to leave. "So you're done with that client?" I ask. "Yeah, probably," Sharlene responds. "The domestic violence people will take care of it now." We return to Sharlene's cubicle for more paperwork.
About fifteen minutes later, the DV worker wanders into Sharlene's cubicle with Kim and her son in tow. Sharlene has already moved on. During her brief meeting with Kim, Sharlene's telephone voicemail maxed out and a client she had seen earlier faxed in her GED program attendance record to prove that she is meeting the requirements for the state's version of TANF—the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) program. She now waits for Sharlene to lift the department's sanction against her and reinstate her cash benefits. Ida has left a note that Sharlene's client Tracy called, leaving messages in both Ida's and Sharlene's voicemail boxes. The welfare office, Tracy reports, has miscalculated her food stamp benefits and she has instructed Sharlene to "Please fix this." "I hate when they do that—'Fix this'—ordering me around," Sharlene comments with irritation. Ida and Sharlene were working through the calculations to find the reputed discrepancy when Kim, her son, and the domestic violence worker entered.
"There are no shelters available in the city," the DV worker announces to Sharlene, stepping away and leaving Kim in the cubicle with no apparent resolution. Kim, with Sharlene and Ida noticeably occupied, offers to wait somewhere else. "No, you're fine," Sharlene comments. Kim takes a seat, trying to remove the baby's snowsuit while he teeters on her lap. The DV worker returns in fifteen minutes and suggests that Kim wait in the empty cubicle across from Sharlene.
As Kim relocates, tears begin streaming down her face, making her Sharlene's third client to cry that day, overwhelmed by nothing in particular and everything at once. It happens at that critical moment when clients become aware of the gap between their needs and what the welfare office can offer. The DV worker leaves for a few minutes and then returns to Kim's makeshift waiting room with pen and paper, interrupting this show of emotion to ask Kim about other places she might stay. Jotting down a few notes, she proposes that Kim and her son move back to the office's front waiting room until they resolve the matter. It is the last time that Kim will see the DV worker. She still has nowhere to go.
Another fifteen minutes pass and Ida wanders back into Sharlene's cubicle after checking on her other supervisees, asking after Kim. Sharlene shrugs and suggests that Ida check with the DV worker. Ida returns five minutes later, visibly aggravated, and announces that the DV worker has left for the day. "What did she tell the client?" Ida demands to no one in particular.
Sharlene and Ida retrieve Kim from the waiting room and escort her once again to Sharlene's cubicle. As they move Kim from place to place within the office, they replicate in eerie miniature her experience in the broader social services system as she is shuffled from agency to agency, bureaucrat to bureaucrat. Ida asks Kim a series of questions, trying to understand what the DV worker told her.
"Did she fill out any paperwork with you?" Ida asks. "No, she just took notes," Kim responds.
"Did she tell you about available shelters? Did she call around?" Ida asks.
"Yes, and she told me that only Greenfield was available, the one I called before. But it's too far. I need to be able to see my mother," Kim explains.
"And what else did she say?" Ida asks.
"That was it," Kim shrugs.
"Is your name on the lease of where you live with your mother?"
Kim nods in the affirmative. "Okay, thank you," Ida says, turning and heading to the office of the assistant director (AD). Evidently, the DV worker wasn't supposed to leave without resolving the matter. Perhaps, by recommending the Greenfield shelter, she thought she had.
In the AD's office, Ida airs her frustration with the DV worker and then moves on to Kim's dilemma: "At 4:30, the chances of her getting emergency housing are slim. Especially because her name is on the lease, a homeless shelter will likely not accept her because technically she has a place to stay. If she calls the police, the police will put her in a hotel that she won't want to stay in. It'll be terrible."
Another twenty minutes pass as the AD places a call to the DSS worker assigned to Kim's mother's case. Kim waits silently in Sharlene's cubicle as her son grows increasingly restless. After Sharlene entertains the boy with an assortment of funny voices and completes some last-minute paperwork—approving a slot in a job search program for a client who has agreed to fulfill a twenty-hour per week attendance requirement in exchange for an extension of her twenty-four-month time clock for cash benefits—she clears her desk and positions her purse and coat for departure. Kim sits staring at nothing in particular, looking dejected and fatigued. "Now we're just in waiting mode," Sharlene reassures her. They sit in silence as Kim's eleven-month-old baby enjoys juice and Cheerios produced from his mother's baby bag, unaware of and unfazed by his family's crisis.
At 4:51 Ida returns to Sharlene's cubicle. "Kim, do you have any relatives? Because I know that we can't place you today."
After thinking for a few moments, Kim volunteers that she has an aunt in Norton with whom she could possibly stay.
"Is your brother on medication?" Ida asks, abruptly shifting gears.
"No, but he should be. He sells drugs," Kim answers.
"When did he last start acting up?" Ida inquires.
"He's always been like this, but he hasn't done anything since January. So most likely I can get in a shelter?" Kim presses.
"We're trying, dear. You being on the lease is an issue we're looking into. We have some calls out. But, regardless, there should be a restraining order. In case you see him out, you need some protection. What does your mother say about all this? She must be beside herself."
"She's upset, but my mother will let him back in the house. No matter what he does. And he's been to jail," Kim offers, subtly reasserting her reluctance to involve law enforcement.
"How long was he in jail?"
"Ten months. He got out in September."
"How old is he? Is there a probation officer or someone who can help you with him? I know he's your brother, but he can't wreak havoc like this. He needs some counseling or something."
The women continue to talk as Ida tries to convince Kim that she and her mother need more support to address the situation. Kim appears to take in Ida's advice about what should be done—a restraining order, a call to his probation officer, perhaps a therapist who might be able to medicate him—but has yet to agree, seemingly pondering the implications of each intervention for her family. Ida gives a sympathetic and motherly nod, continuing to process potential solutions in her mind. Satisfied that she has offered all that she can, she saunters back to the AD's office, returning us to the waiting game. Ida emerges at 5:10. "We're going to have you go to your cousin in Norton over the weekend. But come back on Monday and we will try to place you somewhere. And think about what I told you."
Kim rises and gathers her son in her arms, her energy low and her expression not changing. She mumbles her thanks to Sharlene and Ida and leaves to wait for the bus in the dark February winter, an hour-long trip to Norton ahead of her.
* * *
It's been said that one of the most profound human needs, what we often crave after food, water, and shelter, is to be heard. In moments of quiet desperation and personal pleas for support, what each of us desires is to have someone listen to our hopes, our needs, and our frustrations and perhaps even to respond in a way that improves the quality of our lives. This book speaks to how that need to be "heard" permeates a particular government institution and creates a unique set of opportunities and challenges for those who implement its policies and for those who try to utilize its resources.
On that wintry Friday afternoon, the women charged with helping Kim, a young mother anxious to find safety for herself and her child, are faced with a set of implicit questions and choices. A client approaching the welfare office reporting that she is homeless due to some traumatic event is not unusual for any of these bureaucrats. But their responses are blends of formalized procedures and the "real world" improvisations that must be invented when the client shows up too late on a Friday to be sent to the agency's homeless unit, the domestic violence worker leaves earlier than her colleagues expect, and the client resists the initial prescriptions of the bureaucrats who suggest that she get a restraining order and go to a shelter far away from her crippled (but valued) support system. Sharlene's interpretation of the bureaucratic demands of the job dictate that her involvement in Kim's situation be precisely defined, emotionally contained, and ultimately delegated to specialized co-workers. Ida, on the other hand, performs a series of steps until it becomes clear that the bureaucracy has no more to offer Kim except to suggest that she stay with extended family and return on Monday when the bureaucratic apparatus is prepared to churn for another week to help her find housing. Ida even allows the encounter to wander into territory in which she is troubleshooting around the root of the housing crisis, the turmoil within Kim's family. For a few moments, she takes on the role of adviser and confidante, perhaps not fully grasping Kim's apprehension but clearly trying to engage in a broader conversation about what Kim might do.
In this book I seek to uncover the intricacies that lie beneath the surface of encounters like these by exploring how street-level bureaucrats create professional identities to help them "hear" clients and do their jobs. How do they produce presentations of their prescribed occupational roles? How do these reflect their individual interpretations of the responsibilities they feel and the goals they believe are worth pursuing within the strict parameters of service delivery and the expectations placed on them by clients and other agency actors? As we come to know Sharlene, Ida, and their co-workers over the next several chapters, we will see that how these bureaucrats understand themselves as professionals, and who they are and are not willing to be for the sake of the agency, its clients, and the surrounding community is paramount. It represents how they position the work that they do within the lives that they lead. It forms the scaffolding around which employee discretion, the central idea in Michael Lipsky's classic Street-Level Bureaucracy and its descendants, is built. The self-definitions of organizational actors are expressed strategically and reverberate deeply, and they speak to the very essence of an organization. Bureaucrats' professional identities will be shown to make crucial differences in terms of both how client needs are identified and addressed and the tools and tactics that organizational actors deploy to pursue certain goals. As each employee makes choices that define the expanse and depth of the bureaucracy's reach as she interacts with families in crisis, she exemplifi es how individual actors shape, and are shaped by, the institutions in which they work. Bureaucracies, therefore, are powerful entities in the lives of not only the clients who receive services but also of the individuals who staff them.
The arguments offered in this book encourage us to read bureaucrats as socially situated actors who bring personal conceptions of their occupational roles, as well as investments based on their social group memberships, into policy organizations. They use those experiences and perceptions as filters in part to answer questions about the future of their profession and how they should adapt in times of policy and institutional change. By locating bureaucrats within particular social, political, community, and economic contexts, we gain an even better grasp of how they define and do their jobs, accounting for dynamics that previously remained hidden in our institutional analyses or that were generically categorized as "worker discretion." A question such as "Who am I as a professional?" should no longer be considered overly cerebral; it speaks to the ability of an individual to articulate an understanding of the organization's purpose and her role within it, to execute policy and procedures on the basis of that understanding, and to withstand internal and external critiques to her approach (Albert, Ashforth, and Dutton 2000; Whetten and Godfrey 1998). In the aggregate, the professional identities of bureaucrats can contribute to, or diminish, the constitution of an organizational identity designed to provide the overarching framework of the institutional enterprise. Identity dynamics can fuel perceptions of difference as well as differences in perception within institutions, igniting varying behavioral choices among actors that can bolster or delay how institutions execute organizational changes and stabilize conflict (Gioia et al. 1994; Gioia and Thomas 1996). The inherent battles over identity in organizations exist long after the cosmetic changes involved in organizational transition have taken place and frequently are still being waged as institutional observers and stakeholders have declared the success or failure of a prescribed change.