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Understanding Street-Level Bureaucrats' Decision Making: Determining Eligibility in the Social Security Disability Program


Lael R. Keiser is an associate professor at the University of Missouri, where she holds a joint appointment in the Department of Political Science and the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs. Her research focuses on the implementation of public policy, the use of bureaucratic discretion, the relationship between the bureaucracy and other political institutions, representative bureaucracy, and social welfare and education policy.


Personal interactions between clients and street-level bureaucrats are significant in explaining why street-level bureaucrats behave as they do. Not all bureaucracies that apply program rules to individuals, however, engage face-to-face with their clientele. As more intake procedures are automated, such “one-on-one” encounters decrease. The author generates and tests hypotheses about frontline bureaucratic decision making in the Social Security Disability program, by applying bounded rationality theory. The findings show that eligibility decisions by street-level bureaucrats are affected by their adherence to subsets of agency goals and perceptions of others in the governance system. How quickly they make decisions also has an impact. There is no evidence that the way in which bureaucrats evaluate clients explains their decisions when they lack face-to-face contact.