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This paper presents a critical assessment of the much-discussed tension between bureaucratic accountability and the contextual discretion of ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (i.e. front-line public sector workers). Based on an extensive literature review, the paper outlines the implications of the exercise of agency by street-level bureaucrats in everyday settings. It also looks at the challenges this agency engenders: loss of accountability and divergence from stated policy goals. The paper underlines the need for future research on institutional structures and organisational cultures around street-level bureaucracy. It suggests possible lines of enquiry to steer the debate in new, and hopefully productive, directions.
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