What is a catch-all bureaucracy?
As the national unemployment rate continues to hover around 9.1%, I can’t help wondering how individuals are navigating an organization that is now an important part of their lives: their local unemployment office.
The aim of my book, The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform (Univ of Chicago Press 2009), was not solely to talk about welfare caseworkers. Rather, I was interested in using the case of welfare offices to tell a story about a larger set of organizations. Catch-all bureaucracies, I argue in the book, are government agencies called upon to be the societal arms of “help,” broadly defined. In light of ongoing debates about the remedies for high unemployment, these institutions remain central to our understanding of how those who are economically struggling navigate both macro-level economic and political transformations and micro-level conditions and struggles that shape their financial outlooks.
Michael Lipsky (1980) famously defined street-level bureaucracies as institutions in which government workers interact directly with citizens and exercise substantial discretion in their jobs. However, it would be a mistake to lump all street-level bureaucracies together—harboring the inaccurate assumption that they contain similar levels and kinds of social meaning and subsequently face similar organizational dilemmas. What separates catch-all bureaucracies from other street-level bureaucracies—such as Departments of Motor Vehicles, City Halls, or public services in the most affluent communities—is how the manifestations of personal and group struggles with economic deprivation are readily apparent within their borders. As clients wrestle with unemployment’s causes and consequences, they in turn bring a myriad of concerns and situations into these institutions, placing unique demands on the employees who work in them.
Although catch-all bureaucracies may set out to implement a specific set of policies and distribute a finite set of resources, clients often challenge these institutions to address more complex problems by bringing a range of issues to their doorsteps. For example, a conversation with an unemployment officer may blossom into a discussion about how to stave off a home foreclosure or deal with a family member who struggles to accept the family’s new economic state. These organizations become the “first responders” in that they often offer a bare minimum of services for families in immediate crisis and “last resorts,” leveraged when no other options remain. Because the challenges are so great, and the alternative resources so few, catch-all bureaucracies take on unique roles in the lives of struggling families, even if their circumscribed organizational missions and policy mandates are simultaneously trying to limit clients’ reliance on them.
I do not wish to imply that all of clients’ problems are addressed and brought to graceful conclusions in catch-all bureaucracies. My use of the term of “catch-all” delineates the range of issues and concerns that clients bring to the doorsteps of these agencies rather than the range or quality of the services that these agencies offer to clients. Human service organizations that routinely offer limited or low-quality services to families are still catch-all bureaucracies if clients manage to introduce their challenges into the organizational milieu in ways that shape service-delivery.
In sum, if Lipsky’s notion of “street-level” is meant to signify both the location of the bureaucrat-client encounter and the power of the bureaucrat to guide the interaction, “catch-all” is meant to signify the range of client issues to which these bureaucrats are exposed as they choose when and how to exercise discretion. Both are critical descriptors as we try to understand the parameters and scope of service-delivery within particular institutions like unemployment offices.