Professional agency in street-level work

Gitte Sommer Harrits, Mathilde Cecchini

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The street-level bureaucracy literature teaches us that frontline workers draw on both policy logics and social, cultural, and personal logics in their work (Lipsky, 2010; Rice, 2013). This has also been conceptualized as state and citizen agency (Maynard-Moody & Musheno, 1999, 2003, 2012), and it is both well documented and well theorized. However, the influence of professional logics, knowledge and norms is less developed in the streetlevel bureaucracy literature (Harrits, 2019b). Many street-level bureaucrats are in fact professionals carrying out professional work. Conceptualizing and examining the role of professional logics as well as the interplay between the professional logic and policy logics and social and cultural logics is therefore important. In this paper, we ask: How can we understand and conceptualize professionalism in street-level work? And how can we understand and conceptualize the interconnection and negotiation of state, citizen and professional agency in street-level work? We answer these questions in two steps: First, we re-analyze existing data, to explore how preschool teachers and schoolteachers use, move between, negotiate and reconcile different forms of agency when performing and discussing professional work. We build on two different studies. The first study contains 42 semi-structured interviews with Danish pre-school teachers and schoolteachers on the topic of prevention of social and health risks. The interviews use narrative questions on existing practices, and vignettes mimicking ‘real-life’ situations where professionals have to assess individual children. The second study contains observations, interview and focus group data from 25 weeks of field studies in two different Danish schools, on the topic of health risk prevention in schools. The fact that we use both studies gives us the opportunity to compare the establishment and negotiation of different forms of agency across different professions (pre-school teachers and teachers), across different data types (interviews, focus groups and observational data) and across different contexts (teaching a group of students, assessing single students and discussing policy with an interviewer and/or colleagues). Second, building on the results of the explorative analysis, we discuss how to theoretically understand and conceptualize professional agency and the negotiation of different forms of agency. Here, we rely on the notion of state and citizen agency as suggested by Musheno and Maynard-Moody (1999, 2003, 2012), and develop the concept of professional agency to supplement these concepts. The conception of ‘agency’ here points toward an understanding, where both the institutional context and the individual professional practices needs to be taken into consideration. Agency is always embedded, and institutions are always inhabited (Epp, Maynard-Moody, & Haider-Markel, 2014). Further, we build on the literature on hybrid professionalism (Noordegraaf, 2007, 2015) to conceptualize how different forms of agency are negotiated, and how the institutional context may influence or condition this negotiation. In a final discussion, we draw together our empirical and theoretical findings, and discuss how the concept of professional agency can contribute to the broader literatures on street-level work, the management of street-level work, and policy implementation.
Publikationsdatosep. 2019
Antal sider27
StatusUdgivet - sep. 2019
BegivenhedEGPA 2019 Annual Conference - University of Belfast, Belfast, Storbritannien
Varighed: 11 sep. 201913 sep. 2019


KonferenceEGPA 2019 Annual Conference
LokationUniversity of Belfast


  • Ledelse, organisationsudvikling og innovation
  • Uddannelse, professioner og erhverv