AuthorBalica, Dan Octavian
  1. Introduction

    Romanian civil servants function in a complex and changing environment. In the 29 years since the end of the communist regime, Romania has become a European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state, has a functioning market economy, and is experiencing one of the highest rates of economic growth in the EU (World Bank, 2017). These positive economic and political developments are matched by enduring difficulties; Romania has one of the highest levels of corruption in Europe (Transparency International, 2015), among the lowest levels of trust in democratic institutions (Standard Eurobarometer, 2016) and a low level of government effectiveness (World Bank, 2017).

    Romania's bureaucracy is still heavily politicized (Profiroiu, 2011) and it remains one of the least reformed parts of the society. In the aggregate, Romanians tend to have a high level of power distance (Hofstede, 2005; Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov, 2010; Littrell and Lapadus, 2005), implying a lower willingness to voice against abuses, low educational stock (UNESCO, 2015), and high level of functional illiteracy (PISA, 2012). Traditional guardians against bureaucratic abuses, like media and civil society, are not sufficiently mature (Freedom House, 2015). These difficulties add to major deficiencies in administrative transparency as well as frequent regulatory changes, which do not allow public debate and adaptation to change.

    With these factors in mind, civil servants' interaction with and perspectives on rules and policy implementation become fundamental for understanding public sector performance and democratic accountability. However, with very few exceptions, we know little about those Romanian public servants who potentially have the most significant impact on policy implementation: street-level bureaucrats (SLBs). Dorondel (2016) showed that SLBs distributing food as part of an EU aid program exercise a significant amount of discretion even in the face of significant regulatory burdens. Similarly, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2016) highlighted the potential risks of legislative ambiguity in the construction industry in Romania, where public servants implementing policy enjoy substantial discretionary powers through lack of appropriate regulations and guidance.

    Questions often discussed in Anglo-American literature remain unanswered, including those of civil servants' willingness to bend the rules (DeHart-Davis, 2009; Portillo, 2011; Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2012), their job-related discretion (Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2003; Henderson and Pandey, 2013; Alpes and Spire, 2014), goal ambiguity (Evans and Harris, 2004), and nature of their working environment. To our knowledge, no coherent effort to understand Romanian street level bureaucrats exists.

    This article provides a foundation for the understanding of SLBs in Romania in four main deconcentrated areas: taxation, consumer, environmental, and labor protection. We chose these domains because of their high level of discretion and potential for the use of coercive power, both raising challenges for policy implementation. The next section will discuss key concepts that have come to define literature on street-level bureaucracy. Next, we will outline our data and methods, followed by a descriptive discussion of Romanian SLBs and considerations for future empirical research. This paper offers a unique view on Romanian street-level bureaucrats that can inform both practitioners and public administration scholars on the challenges of bureaucracy in the midst of ongoing reform.

  2. Street level bureaucracy: key concepts

    Street-level bureaucracy has been an important part of the academic conversation in public administration for more than three and a half decades (c.f., Lipsky, 1980). Emerging from this conversation is a focus on concepts of bureaucratic discretion, autonomy, perspectives on rules and rule abidance, the impact of political principals and, more recently, discussion of public service motivation and pro-social motivation. In this section we will highlight a sample of studies of street-level bureaucracy, with most emerging from a Western context.

    Bureaucratic discretion has long been a focal point of public administration research (Finer, 1941; Friedrich, 1940), and has been especially central to considerations of decision-making latitude and the abilities of bureaucrats at the front lines of policy implementation (Lipsky, 1980). These bureaucrats are often charged with enacting complex policies in difficult environments with little oversight (Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2003; Riccucci, 2005; Prottas, 1978). Despite the attention these positions receive, it is impossible to write rules that provide sufficient depth to address all situations (Lipsky, 1980), thus allowing for some amount of administrative discretion at all levels of government service. Furthermore, actual perception of rules also play a role. Maynard-Moody and Musheno (2003, p. 155) observed that cops, teachers, and counselors 'first make normative judgments about offenders, kids, and clients and then apply, bend, or ignore rules and procedures to support the moral reasoning'. Similarly, while discussing rule abidance in the context of issues of race and ethnicity in the United States (US), Portillo (2011) shows that SLBs of color abide more by the rules because of fear of escalation. This reinforces DeHart-Davis's argument (2009) that bureaucratic compliance, along with technical design, is central for rule effectiveness.

    While discretion and rule abidance are core concepts of SLB theory, their determinants are equally important. Braxton (1993 apud DeHart-Davis 2009, p. 904) saw goal ambiguity as a major cause for lower rule abidance, arguing that unclear goals disengage bureaucrats and may nudge them to deviate from rules and norms. Brockmann (2015, p. 1) takes this further, stating that complex and ambiguous working environments require SLBs to exercise discretion and thereby bend rules to perform their daily task. Goal ambiguity may also allow bureaucrats to pacify potentially conflicting goals (Matland, 1995) and rules abundance may, paradoxically, favor more discretion (Evans and Harris, 2004). In contrast, work burdens may force SLBs to switch the focus from client-service and prioritize among clients (Baviskar apud Tummers et al., 2015), which reinforces Evans and Harris's idea that discretion is not inherently good or bad.

    Following an interactionist approach (Shaver, 2010, p. 369), recent efforts also tackle psychological elements in understanding front line bureaucrats. Conformity, pro-social behavior, and public service motivation (PSM) are of particular interest, as direct and unambiguous oversight is almost impossible and intrinsic motives may play a key role in good governance and rule abidance (Tyler and Blader, 2000). While the latter two are both outwardly-focused, pro-social behavior appears to be conceptually different from PSM (Esteve et al., 2016). Maynard Moody and Musheno (2003) show that PSM can increase client focus, while Shim, Park and Eom (2015) argue that it may lower turnover intentions and perception of red tape (also Scott and Pandey, 2005). At the same time, because PSM is inherently subjective, it may perpetuate SLB biases (Lipsky, 1980; Prendergast, 2007). In a study on border police, Guyer (2013) shows that SLB may be willing to engage in pro-social behavior even when their careers may be at risk. Brockmann (2015) suggests similar behavior, whilst Moynihan, Pandey and Wright (2012) show that pro-social behavior may make public managers more willing to use performance measurement tools. Furthermore, SLBs willingness to conform to authority and status quo may raise additional challenges, as it can perpetuate corruption (Ashforth and Anand, 2003; Lee-Chai and Bargh, 2001) and discrimination (Petersen and Diete, 2000; Feagin and Eckberg, 1980), and favor the development of a professional culture that is resistant to change (Prenzler, 1997).

    In turn, organizational culture often emerges as important for understanding SLB (Kelly, 1994; Sandfort, 2000; Riccucci, 2005). Studies have shown that judgment based on individually held moral beliefs, values, and cultural schemes influence bureaucrat's discretionary practices (Lipsky, 1980; Kingfisher, 1998; Hasenfeld, 2000; Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2003; Dubois, 2013). While conformity and other individual level variables can explain SLB behavior, group norms and values also play a role in how public service employees relate to rules and clients (Green, 2005). For former authoritarian administrations, power distance, as well as uncertainty avoidance, may be of particular interest, as hierarchical and undisputed execution of orders characterized state bureaucracies.

    The behavior of front line bureaucrats in post-communist countries has been a focus of a limited amount of past research. Studying Russia and Poland, Berenson (2010) used reflections on state-citizen interactions that came in the form of tests of social welfare and employment offices, seeking to tease out the impact of broader structural and societal variables. Findings of this study indicated that, rather than seeing an expected difference between these countries, front line workers were generally able to satisfy the needs of clients (Berenson, 2010). Despite this finding of no difference, examining street-level bureaucracies with attention to other contexts remains important. Political considerations of SLBs have been influential in past studies, finding that cues from managers about political aspects of jobs can have an impact (May and Winter, 2007), as can considerations of perceived broader national interests on the part of front line workers (Alpes and Spire, 2014). The national context in which street-level behavior occurs may be influential. As Rice (2012, p. 1040) notes, attention to...

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