Finding the Fringes of Formality: Organizational Capability in Street-Level Bureaucracies in Brazil

Guest blog written by Susana Cordeiro Guerra

Why is it that, despite the abundant resources invested and the largely favorable macroeconomic conditions that have prevailed until recently, middle-income countries have been unable to systematically deliver quality basic services, such as education and safety, to their citizens? Despite a wide variety of attempts to improve these crucial public services, results have failed to meet expectations.

Efforts to build state capabilities have often been influenced by the practice of the developed countries, traditionally especially the large Weberian bureaucracy model but increasingly in recent years models emphasizing less formal or strict approaches to bureaucratic performance and service delivery, such as those using the private sector as a rubric. Developing countries have applied various frameworks for improving service delivery and bureaucratic reform over the last 50 years – and yet there has been little to no significant convergence to developed country service provision levels (Pritchett 2013).

This is more than a puzzle. It has been a cause for revolt. Over the past few years, citizens have repeatedly risen in protest across the globe – notably in Brazil – to demand better service delivery and more efficient and fair government. What these protests highlight is actually a fundamental crisis of the state. If states cannot deliver better quality services in light of rising wealth, education, and expectations, can they sustain legitimacy?

This problem therefore calls for renewed scholarly and policy attention to how states can better perform these crucial functions, and thus to the performance of state bureaucracies. It also calls for novel approaches to how to resolve this problem. This dissertation project takes up this call by focusing attention on the too often neglected role of organizational performance and its role in improved service delivery by state bureaucracies. In particular, I focus on the under-investigated problems of organizational capability, its causes, and its relationship to positive organizational outputs in the context of “middle capability” countries.

I investigate the challenge of improving state capability by looking closely at the dynamics of Brazil, a paradigmatic and large middle-income country that has struggled with this very set of problems for a number of decades. In particular, I examine why there is variation in reform implementation in front-line bureaucratic units in three different sectors: education, policing and industrial policy. These sectors represent three different types of street-level (non-logistical) bureaucracies in a state of “middle capability” like Brazil. I chose case studies in each sector that have been deemed successes in reform implementation, but that actually exhibited tremendous variation in the management of the front-line service delivery units.

My question is: Why do some schools, police pacification units and innovation institutes do better than others? My hypothesis is that bureaucratic behavior is important to explaining this.

To research the question, I have drawn on semi-structured surveys, with both open- and close-ended questions to examine the behavioral patterns of managers (police commanders, school principals and innovation institute directors) of these front-line units. Having examined nearly 160 units across three sectors, I have found that purely structural explanations cannot account for this variation. For instance, I found units in the least likely places that were being very well managed while others in favorable settings that were not well managed.

So what accounts for this variation? I argue that an important part of this success under these conditions is related to how bureaucrats in middle management approach their responsibilities, and especially how they deal with fulfilling their responsibilities in light of the rules and protocols under which they operate. In particular, I hypothesize and have found evidence that the most successful are the middle-level bureaucrats who share a particular behavioral profile – a profile I refer to as operating “at the fringes of formality.”

The fringes of formality behavioral profile entails three main characteristics: middle-level agents who exhibit initiative, spend time on strategic rather than administrative or tactical functions and who operate in a particular way in the bureaucracy, husbanding and spending bureaucratic capital in a way that is innovative and results-oriented, but respects the rules and the interests of the organization. This differentiates such behavior both from model Weberian bureaucrats who strictly follow rules and protocols but also from jeitinho bureaucrats who simply seek convenient workarounds without reference to the interests of the larger organization or rules.

What do these three characteristics that describe the fringes of formality behavior mean in practice? Middle-level agents who have initiative show a strong sense of de facto autonomy and are energetic in the pursuit of solutions to organizational challenges within their appropriate sphere in the bureaucracy. Middle-level agents who spend their time largely on strategic functions are mostly involved in planning and abstract thinking, as opposed to administrative and routinized functions. Lastly, agents who are operating at the fringes of formality use their bureaucratic capital in a way that is useful and productive to the organization’s interests but tangential to the rules and protocols rather than strictly following them. In doing so, these agents are able to stretch and create space within rules without breaking them and in a manner that also benefits the organization as a whole.

I have found evidence that this behavior is present in organizations in Brazil, but also that it seems to be associated with positive administrative or intermediate outputs from the relevant level of their organizations. This, in turn, is associated with better organizational performance.

It is important to note that the aim of the project is to explain the variation in reform implementation across front-line administrative units by examining the relationship between behavioral profiles and intermediate organizational outputs. The aim of the project is not to examine whether given bureaucracies or organizational programs and initiatives lead to improved outcomes and overall performance in the sector. Rather, the aim is to identify the kinds of bureaucratic behavior that are associated with better bureaucratic performance in middle capability settings. Thus, the focus is on evaluating what causes bureaucratic competence, not with the evaluating programs themselves. Of course, while good programs are important to good public outcomes, so too bureaucratic competence is essential to effective public service provision.

Ultimately, the dissertation project has found a profile of behavior that seems to be associated with positive organizational outputs. This behavior is not the typical behavior that is commonly understood to be “proper” or “optimal” bureaucratic behavior. It is a behavior that actually somewhat deviates from the norm of what is considered “good” bureaucratic behavior. The upshot is that the behavior that actually works is one that is more bottom-up, more organic, and not the one that seems “the best” from a distance or in the abstract. In other words, there are practices currently being evolved or developed on the ground, within bureaucracies without top-down guidance or management that are working, even if they do not really conform to what is usually understood as best practice. These are the practices that can allow the middle-level manager to free their respective front-line unit of the middle capability trap and move to a more Weberian looking type of bureaucracy in the long run.

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