frontline bureaucrats are often portrayed as unthinking automata, yet they are in fact vested with a substantial margin of discretion

The Atlantic just published a curious article about dehumanizing social service bureaucracies. A few days earlier, they published this interview.

The interview is with a Harvard researcher who made the groundbreaking discovery that treating everyone with dignity is important. This is actually new information for the academics and the intended audience of The Atlantic. You can make a career from writing down basic things about how to treat people that were explained to me by my parents.

This person got paid for some tourism and then wrote down her amazing discoveries:

B.R.J. O’Donnell: You once led a conflict-resolution workshop for former guerrillas in Latin America. How did that inform your research on dignity?

Donna Hicks: Inevitably, in these intractable conflicts—like the ones that I’ve worked on in Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and an array of countries in the Middle East—it wasn’t just about politics. That’s what was presented as the problem, but what I found was that underlying all of these political issues was this overwhelming undercurrent of unaddressed dignity violations between the warring parties.

When I used the word dignity to name that undercurrent, it opened doors in a way that talking about emotional injuries or trauma just didn’t. I found that when I said [to combatants], “Look, I know what’s at the heart of this—your dignity has been violated, and there is no way you have found to have that acknowledged or recognized,” that’s when we got progress. It wasn’t just that I touched on something that was relevant in international conflicts. Whether it’s your colleague, or your parent, or your significant other, there are these dignity violations that fly back and forth all the time in relationships. And that’s the backdrop of my work.

O’Donnell: How did that understanding impact your own relationships?

Hicks: I aspire to treat people with dignity all the time. And I think that was at the heart of my relationships with my students. I didn’t see some asymmetrical power arrangement where I was the all-knowing professor and they were the students. I might be different in title, but when it comes to dignity, we are the same, we are equal. That is the heart and soul of my mentorship relationships.

The existence of this interview really shows how much casual dehumanization is the default in our culture. The idea of treating all people like people is novel and interesting higher up the socioeconomic ladder. It’s the kind of thing you could bring up at parties without really meaning it, for virtue signaling reasons.

However, it’s necessary. 3 days later, The Atlantic tried to build our empathy for bureaucrats taking away poor people’s dignity. It starts by describing the problem accurately enough:

Bureaucracy is so baffling that it can be funny—until of course it isn’t. Millions of people rely on public assistance to make ends meet. When rent, medical insurance, and personal dignity are in the balance, absurdity stops being comical and starts being terrifying.

The popular conception of bureaucracy is familiar. There are of course the rules: innumerable, entangled, often impenetrable. There are the stiff waiting rooms: white, fluorescent-lit, with rows of identical chairs and gray partition panels. Above all, perhaps, there are the people, the infamous bureaucrats. They are the supposedly human face of the state—cold, distant, unconcerned. Of all the ills of bureaucracy, they might be the worst. They look without seeing, they listen without hearing, and they proclaim decisions that can change people’s lives with the indifference of a butcher slicing a piece of steak.

The author, Bernardo Zacka, spent 8 months volunteering as a receptionist at a “nonprofit contractor for the state”, with a focus on the bureaucrats.

While working there, I learned that the routine of everyday work at the front lines of public service is not quite what it seems from the outside. It is neither as simple, repetitive, nor rule-governed as one might believe. If frontline work is soul-sucking, it is less because bureaucrats must mechanically apply rules than because they must shoulder, day in and day out, the weight of difficult discretionary decisions which most people have the luxury to ignore.

Frontline bureaucrats are often portrayed as unthinking automata, yet they are in fact vested with a substantial margin of discretion. This is where the challenge of implementing policy starts. It is not that rules are absent; on the contrary, they abound. But they are often sufficiently ambiguous that they lend themselves to various plausible interpretations, or so numerous that they conflict with one another. When this is the case, bureaucrats must exert independent judgment to figure out what to do. If they were to stop doing so and adhere religiously to the scripts provided to them, public-service agencies would come to a halt.

This is true of law in general. It’s simply a way of exercising power. Powerful people are going to do what they’re going to do. Various ritual justifications might be necessary.

Notice the assumption: “decisions which most people have the luxury to ignore.” From the Census Bureau in 2015:

Approximately 52.2 million (or 21.3 percent) people in the U.S. participated in major means-tested government assistance programs each month in 2012, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released today. Participation rates were highest for Medicaid (15.3 percent) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program (13.4 percent).

The average monthly participation rate in major means-tested programs increased from 18.6 percent in 2009 to 20.9 percent in 2011. However, from 2011 to 2012, there was no statistically significant change in the percentage of people who participated. From 2009 to 2012, the average monthly participation rates for Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and SNAP increased, while the rate decreased for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families/General Assistance.

“Participation in government programs is dynamic,” said Shelley Irving, an analyst with the Census Bureau’s Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division. “The Survey of Income and Program Participation shows how individuals move in and out of government programs and how long they participate in them.”

The largest share of participants (43.0 percent) in any of the public assistance programs stayed in the programs between 37 and 48 months. Additionally, 31.2 percent of people participated between one and 12 months between January 2009 and December 2012.

For context, that’s more than the number of people with blonde hair. It must be nice feeling like you have the luxury to ignore that many of your fellow human beings.

The article casually mentions that most of the people served were black or Hispanic. Then it moves on, conspicuously avoiding racism as a factor:

Some uses of discretion are technical. In welfare agencies, for instance, caseworkers must draw on their expertise to determine which work-training program is most likely to be successful for a particular client. Other uses of discretion, however, are normative, or value-laden. Did clients have a “good reason” to miss their appointment? Did they exert “sufficient effort” to look for a job? Questions such as these call for moral or political judgment. And the stakes are high: When one is dealing with vulnerable clients, erring on one side or the other can make the difference between someone having food on the table, a safe place to sleep, and a bit of dignity left or not.

So what do you think happens when white people with master’s degrees are overworked to the point of grouchiness and then given major, unaccountable authority over poor black people?

Here’s a dilemma:

It is the end of fuel-assistance season, and your office, which is already understaffed in normal circumstances, is crowded with applicants who need help keeping their houses warm during the winter. Most are in precarious situations, and many have taken time off from work to be here. Providing them with timely service is of the essence.

The client you are currently assisting, however, has arrived with incomplete paperwork and seems too confused and agitated to comprehend the instructions you give him. In leafing through the documents he did bring, you notice that he is eligible for other services, and urgently in need of them. You can devote the next hour to him or to those in the waiting room. Do you delve into the case? Or do you send the client off and proceed with the others, but risk releasing him into the world without the support he needs? The uncertainty gnaws at you, for as one caseworker put it to me, “We just don’t know who can get things done on their own and who can’t.”

Note the preference given to people who already have jobs. They’re only taking the time off work because the agency is requiring them to physically show up for an appointment. However, because they’re present, they provide a pretext for throwing the person most in need to the wolves. It’s like some kind of nightmare reverse triage.

In cases such as these, frontline workers are forced to choose between an option that is bad and one that may be even worse. They have to make such difficult decisions, moreover, in view of the very people who will suffer the consequences, and watch as disappointment and despair color their faces. The clients bold enough to vent their frustration might prefer to direct it at their elected representatives, but in that moment, the only person they can scold is the one in front of them: the bureaucrat.

How do workers cope with that? Some, understandably, cannot or will not take it. “It used to feel like we were doing something for clients,” a woman named Angela Neville said to The Guardian last year in explaining why she left her job as an employment service advisor in the UK. “Now it [was doing] something to them.”

Others stay, but become desensitized, turning the blame onto clients. “Some staff, they’re just so burnt out,” a colleague confided, “that they feel like people just make up stories to get things.”

Others learn to don a professional mask, which they then take off, with difficulty, at the end of the workday. Once I caught a glimpse of this myself: A caseworker I had never seen smiling suddenly brightened up, his face transformed beyond recognition. A relative had entered the office. That is when I realized he had been compartmentalizing all along.

Others still, the majority perhaps, seek out a delicate balance. They carefully guard their emotional exposure to clients for fear of depleting themselves entirely, saving themselves up for the cases that truly need their attention. “Sometimes,” a caseworker told me by way of introduction to the agency, “it’s good to engage yourself fully with clients, because they don’t get someone who can listen to them. … But in my role, I’ve learned to not get attached with a lot of folks.”

By using the word “bold” for people who yell at someone grossly disrespecting them, he admits that social service workers are intimidating.

When I was doing animal research, I had respect for the rats that struggled, but the truth was that they had a worse time of it because I wasn’t going to let them win under any circumstances. This is the same.

He just makes up the fact that people would rather yell at their “elected representatives” (note the implicit victim-blaming in that phrase). The whole point of the article is how much personal discretion social workers have. So why is a mistreated client’s anger misdirected if they’re angry at the person mistreating them?

He’s trying to make it sound acceptable that people are so pained by seeing and hearing poor people that they’re justified in further dehumanizing those poor people. It’s NOT the same thing as making the neutral observation that people behave this way. He uses the word “understandably” to signal sympathy more than intellectual understanding. It’s intolerable when people speak up for themselves. How dare they! Who wouldn’t be cruel to someone asking them for help?

When people are obviously judging people based on Ronald Reagan welfare queen stereotypes, he lets the person get away with attributing that to “burnout.”

He tries to make them sound like angels who open up their feelings for “cases that truly need their attention,” but how do they know which cases those are? I thought the point was that they don’t have time or energy to listen in the first place, and they refer the difficult people around in circles?

Seen through the eyes of clients, the result of these various coping strategies may, in most cases, look the same: an air of indifference. Yet this indifference is misleading, not only because it covers up multiple types of responses, but also because it often originates from the opposite inclination. Bureaucrats end up appearing indifferent not because they are uncaring, but as an adaptive response to the fact that they do, or at least at some point did, care.

This is a common misunderstanding among white people: that we give a fuck about what’s in their heart of hearts. We care about actions, not what people say about their intentions. Of course they’re going to say they have well-meaning ones. If they honestly intended to help others more than themselves, their actions would be different.

He wouldn’t think it’s weird if someone asked him about Hemingway at a cocktail party.

The boundaries that bureaucrats erect are of course not impermeable, and sometimes the professional mask drops. I witnessed caseworkers lose their composure while listening to their clients’ harrowing tales. I also saw barriers break down when clients departed from traditional scripts by cracking a joke, asking a probing question, or demanding a justification. Occasionally, they may catch workers entirely off guard, like when a client in his mid-50s, sporting a colorful Peruvian poncho and a pillbox hat, rose up from his seat in the waiting room and asked me, without any apparent reason, “In school, did you read Hemingway?” To which I answered earnestly, “No, but we read Steinbeck.”

Do people with “colorful Peruvian ponchos” automatically not like books?

But so long as the demands placed on them far outweigh the resources they have at their disposal, there is a limit to what bureaucrats can do. To clients, frontline workers may appear as powerful gatekeepers who control access to public-assistance programs. Within their own agencies, however, they are typically low-ranking employees who are rarely consulted on matters of policy or management. They are frequently reduced, as such, to being front-row witnesses to some of society’s most pressing problems without being able to offer more than patchwork solutions.

Under such conditions, how could one not project an air of indifference? Affecting distance helps bureaucrats save face and retain an appearance of control. It allows them to set expectations, signaling to clients that they risk being disappointed if they hope for too much. Most of all, indifference enables bureaucrats to protect themselves from being worn down by the strain of everyday work, for they will have to return the next day and do it all over again.

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning talks about working in the clinic at a concentration camp and struggling tremendously not to start hitting patients who’d given up and were making it difficult to be ready for (obviously ultra-scary) inspections.

Buddha saw old age, sickness, and death and became a great teacher of compassion. “Under such conditions.” Life is suffering. Thus, you’re not too cool to see it firsthand.

This article is supposed to come across as thoughtful and compassionate, but really it’s there to entrench the cruelty that’s already normalized. The distancing at the end is unconvincing:

If bureaucrats appear distant and unconcerned, if they seem cold and expressionless, it is important to remember that they are like that in part because of the policy choices that were made by their fellow citizens through the democratic process, and the meager resources that were placed at their disposal. To express sympathy for bureaucrats is not to condone the system of public assistance they represent, but to acknowledge that it does not leave them unscathed either.

Compassion fatigue is a real problem, yeah.

However, it’s totally absurd for The Atlantic, in the year 2017, to write as if high school civics stuff they don’t even teach anymore is true. Everybody knows that the United States isn’t a meaningfully democratic country, especially people who read The Atlantic. The only point of those sentences is to make it seem like the status quo is acceptable and good. If only people voted harder, they wouldn’t have to be poor and bother the social workers with their sadness and frustration!

Note that this article coincides with a period of increasing poverty and degrading social services. It exists to help people who saw a homeless person and felt bad, stop feeling bad. There are more of them than there used to be.