Professionals, discretion and public sector reform in the UK: re-visiting Lipsky

Ian Taylor, Josie Kelly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose – Seeks to examine how far Michael Lipsky's theory of discretion as it relates to public sector professionals as “street-level bureaucrats” is still applicable in the light of public sector reform and in particular the introduction of increased managerial control over professionals. Design/methodology/approach – The main thesis in Lipsky's work, Street-Level Bureaucracy, that street-level bureaucrats devise their own rules and procedures to deal with the dilemmas of policy implementation is linked to public sector reform over the past 25 years or so. The article differentiates between three forms of discretion, rule, task and value and assesses the extent to which these different forms of discretion have been compromised by reform. Examples are drawn principally from the literature on school teachers and social workers Findings – The findings suggest that the rule-making (hence bureaucratic) capacity of professionals at street-level is much less influential than before although it is questionable whether or not the greater accountability of professionals to management and clarity of the targets and objectives of organisations delivering public policy has liberated them from the dilemmas of street-level bureaucracy. Research limitations/implications – The work has focussed on the UK and in particular on two professions. However, it may be applied to any country which has undergone public sector reform and in particular where “new public management” processes and procedures have been implemented. There is scope for in-depth studies of a range of occupations, professional and otherwise in the UK and elsewhere. Practical implications – Policy makers and managers should consider how far the positive aspects of facilitating discretion in the workplace by reducing the need for “rule-making” to cope with dilemmas have been outweighed by increased levels of bureaucracy and the “de-skilling” of professionals. Originality/value – Lipsky's much cited and influential work is evaluated in the light of public sector reform some 25 years since it was published. The three forms of discretion identified offer the scope for their systematic application to the workplace.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)629-642
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Public Sector Management
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2006


  • bureaucracy
  • control
  • public sector reform
  • social workers
  • teachers
  • United Kingdom


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