January 18th 2018, the VIDE publicatieprijs 2017 will be awarded. My own paper Werkt de wildwestwaarschuwing wel? is one of the nominees. The other nominee is How to prove, how to interpret and what to do? Uncertainty experiences of street-level tax officials by Nadine Raaphorst, published in Public Management Review in 2017 (2016 Impact Factor: 2.293).
Obviously, I can’t really objectively summarize this paper. And the fact that it is qualitative research based on a storytelling method, is also completely opposite to my quantitative bias. However, transcribing 37 stories “about situations they experienced as difficult or complicated” by 17 tax officials, is probably no easy feat and quite some work. And just like my paper, Raaphorst did not study actual behaviour.
This study examines the kind of uncertainties frontline tax officials working with a trust-based inspection approach experience in interacting with citizen-clients. The classical literature on bureaucracy and the street-level bureaucracy literature suggest frontline officials face two kinds of uncertainties: information and interpretation problems. Analysing stories of Dutch frontline tax officials collected through in-depth interviews, this article shows that these two kinds of uncertainty only explain a part of the uncertainties experienced. Respondents also face action problems requiring improvisational judgements. The study furthermore finds that different sources underlie these uncertainties, pointing to possible explanations.
Raaphorst studied Dutch tax officials (Belastingdienst) that have dealings with citizen-clients/entrepeneurs, and who have to implement a trust-based inspection approach (“horizontaal toezicht”, aimed at “collaboration and trust” and “rules and legislation that are vaguer“).
A trade-off is: “such policies may yield more responsive law enforcement and service provision, [but] they could also compromise consistent and fair decision-making, especially when certain types of citizen-clients have better negotiation and communication skills to take control in bureaucratic interactions.”
The paper seeks to solve “the lack of understanding of the kinds, conditions, and consequences of uncertainty at play in frontline work.” This is all the more important in a more uncertain bureaucratic process where “bureaucrats’ actions are increasingly made dependent on their perceptions of citizens in interactions, and to a lesser extent prescribed by formal rules, this leads to a more uncertain bureaucratic process.”
Three types of uncertainty
Apparently, there are two types of uncertainty inexisting literature (information and interpretation) and this study adds a new type; action uncertainty:
These findings underline the importance of social interactions to bureaucratic work and hence to understanding the role of uncertainty in bureaucracy. Whereas public administration literature has pointed to the existence of information uncertainties and interpretation uncertainties this study adds a third kind: action uncertainties.
Because “objective rationality (…) did not reflect organizational reality” as described below, there is a information problem with ‘unknowns’.
[In] the traditional model of bureaucracy (…) bureaucracies are seen as rational organizations that should limit individual bureaucrats’ discretionary powers by setting strict rules and procedures. Technocratic knowledge, embodied in rules, procedures, and policies, is put at the heart of bureaucratic organizations.
On uncertainty as an interpretation problem: “bureaucrats’ discretionary practices are not only informed by organizational classification systems and rules but also by personal judgements regarding clients’ worthiness or deservingness, based on cultural schemes, moral beliefs and values, or certain stereotypes.” So “‘instances'” need to be interpreted, to see “what ‘is really happening’“.
A paragraph on Uncertainty of social interactions rightly states: “Discretion at the frontlines ‘is necessary to respond to the unexpected and to ensure that services are responsive to individual need’” And in the public administration literature apparently “The uncertainty that is inherent to discretion is treated as given.” I don’t know the PA-literature, but this strikes me as strange (see this related discussion Toezichthouders moeten zelf initiatief nemen in discussie over buitenwettelijk toezicht).
The paper has three tables (one in the appendix), that I tried to integrate into one table. I felt they overlapped a lot and differences were more in lay-out than content. That didn’t help me understand the structure of the paper. The different order in the text on action uncertainty from the tables also confused me a bit.
Table 2 Description of the kinds of uncertainty at play in frontline tax officials’ work, slightly adapted and enriched:
|Contexts in which they occur
||Lack of evidence to support one’s interpretation 
||Vague rules and legislation 
Conflicting norms, values, feelings 
|Impact of citizen-clients’ private lives and emotions 
Negotiations with citizen-clients 
Deviations from normality 
||Vague stories of citizen- clients |
Conflicting informational cues |Comprehensibility of account is not clear-cut affair |
Finding proof requires effort and time
|Law insufficient as backing |Potential inconsistent decision-making | Far-reaching consequences for citizen-clients
||On-the-spot reaction | Consequentiality of official’s immediate reaction|Change of inspection approach | Dependence on citizen- client
Numbers in brackets: number of stories (total N=37).
As I understood it, rows with problem and Context are nearly identical to Tabel 1 and Table A1 from the Appendix.
For Interpretation uncertainty, what is called “Vague rules and legislation” in Table 2 is “Determining right decision” in Table 1 (and sometimes “grey area interpretation” or “absence of clear standards about what is right in these instances” in the text).
And “Conflicting norms, values, feelings” in Table 2 is called “Experiencing dilemmas” in Table 1 (or “tension between what one ought to do as a tax official and one’s personal values or ideas about what is appropriate, or one’s feelings of empathy.” in the text). Another nice description of this construct is “this leeway or ‘freedom to struggle’ involves dilemmas between following the law on the one hand and feelings of empathy on the other hand.”
The “Impact of citizen-clients’ private lives and emotion” under Action uncertainty is described in the text as “emotional labour” and “when ‘private life’ leaks into the encounter“.
The story illustrating “Negotiations with citizen-clients” where one tax official felt “he has been too open and has given away too much already early in the negotiation” was the most salient and best at describing a construct for me.