Street-level Bureaucrats and Coping Mechanism: Reflection of Community Forestry Policy Implementation from Nepal

Scholars of public policy implementation research often note that the street-level bureaucrats’ working conditions are characterized by high service demand from their clients and sheer shortfall of organizational resources. This paper tries to unfold the routine actions of street- level bureaucrats in community forestry policy implementation in Nepal. The street- level bureaucracy theory is used as a theoretical template to explain the routine actions of the front-line workers. The main aim of this paper is to examine how and in what ways the street- level bureaucrats handle their actions in Community Forestry Policy delivery. The study employs both qualitative and quantitative research approaches. The findings of this study suggest that the street-level bureaucrats face a high service demand from community forestry user groups and have inadequate organizational resources to meet such demand. It also indicates that those front-line workers prioritize their activities through several informal procedures, behaviors and strategies as well as built-in mechanisms. These archetypal informal coping strategies help them manage their substantial work load and almost unlimited service demand from CFUGs, especially in the light of sheer shortfall of organizational resources at their organization.
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1. Introduction

Community forestry (CF) in Nepal is one of the most promising examples of shift in property rights from the state to the local communities for conservation, management and utilization of forest resources. This program was launched in the early 1980s as part of the effort to persist on the hot issues of Himalayan forest degradation crisis, as the government of Nepal realized that the active participation of the local people is more or less inevitable for the forest conservation. Policy and legal instruments such as Master Plan for the Forestry Sector 1989, succeeding Forest Act 1993 and Forest Regulation1995 have provided an enabling milieu to legitimize the concept and translate it into practice through subsequent handover of national forest to the local communities. As a result, about 25 per cent of the forest area has been handed over to the local communities forming more than 17,000 community forest user groups (CFUGs) (DoF, 2011). The range of stakeholders has widened to include users, government, non- government organizations, international institutions and private sector, all of who sustain, facilitate and enable CF at different levels.

In the implementation of CF, government forestry staffs closely work with the local communities. The organizational structure of the Department of Forest (DoF) in Nepal is a three-tier system. The DoF is an apex body, under which regional directorate and the district forest offices (DFOs) operate. The forest officials from the DFOs are the key actors to deliver different types of services to the CFUGs, which are involved in the forest management at the grassroots level. The CF is celebrated as a successful model of participatory forest management, however, severe implementation deficits still remain. Scholarly literature has pointed out a few deficiencies in CF implementation (e.g. lack of delegation, frequent staff transfer, inadequate financial and human resources) (see Kanel and Acharya, 2008; Rai Paudel, 2008). However, until now, no comprehensive study on CF policy implementation exists from the perspective of chain of implementation. General political science literature indicates that one key element in the chain of implementation is the work of the bureaucratic staff operating at the “front-line” of policy implementation. In the broad body of literature, under the overall term of “street- level bureaucracy theory”, the front-line workers’ work conditions are characterized by chronic shortfall of resources and high demand for services from the clients. The front-line workers adopt the coping mechanism to overcome such challenges while providing services to the clients (Lipsky, 1980). This paper focuses on the roles, routine actions and activities of DoF front-line staff that translates the CF policy into practice.

The second section of the paper discusses the policy implementation research and the street- level bureaucrats’ work conditions. The third section provides overall methods, tools and techniques employed in this research. The fourth section presents empirical results and the fifth provides the discussion. Finally, the sixth section concludes the paper by highlighting prospects for further research.

2. Theoretical Framework

Classical examples of early policy implementation researchers, including Bardach (1977), Derthick (1972), Mazmanian and Sabatier (1983) and Pressman and Wildavsky (1973) highlighted the question of how political decisions and policy directives are delivered by implementing institutions. These top-down scholars envisaged policy implementation as the hierarchical execution of centrally–defined policy intentions (Hill and Hupe, 2002). Several scholars note that “top-down” approaches are not able to answer the question of why public policies at the implementation level often veer off from the originally planned intentions (Elmore, 1978; Hjern and Hull, 1982; Lipsky, 1979; 1980; Brodkin, 1997).

The second wave of implementation research emerged in the late 1970s. Scholars of this wave hold a view opposite to the top-down approach. Several scholars argued that policy was, in fact, made through the day-to-day practices of lower-level staff on the front-line (Lipsky, 1980; Prottas, 1978). The “bottom-up” advocates mainly focus on local bureaucrats and their legitimate concern in implementation. In the early 1980s, Lipsky’s street-level bureaucracy theory represented an important theoretical contribution to bottom-up policy implementation research. This view suggests studying what is actually happening on the recipient level and analyzing the real causes that influence action on the ground (Lipsky, 1971, 1980). Implementation studies frequently have found that the most important actors are not the official policymakers in the capital but rather the street-level bureaucrats(SLBs) — the classroom teachers, social workers or pollution control inspectors — who interact directly with target groups (Lipsky, 1980). Such findings show that public policy has both practical implications through street-level implementation responses as well as its official meaning described in the formal policy documents.

In his work, Lipsky (1980) noted that public service workers are involved in quite a variety of public organizations. However, they often tend to have notably similar work conditions. These conditions include unlimited demands from the clients and limited resources, responsibility for huge caseloads as well as vague and ambiguous policy goals that are sometimes not in compliance with organizational goals. This facet raises the question of what street-level bureaucrats do in such conditions to deliver public services. Some of the literature discusses the development of informal strategies or practices designed to meet the public services in the aforementioned conditions (see Lipsky, 1980; Prottas, 1979; Brodkin, 1997; Meyers and Vorsanger, 2003). Lipsky (1980) calls these informal practices and strategies as “coping behaviours” or “coping mechanisms”. In his book, Lipsky (1980) presents several coping mechanisms developed by SLBs in dealing with clients — i.e. gate keeping, categorization of the clients, giving and withholding the information.

In Lipsky’s (1980) word, gate-keeping role is played by those workers who are at the position to encounter the clients in the street- level bureaucracy. In his seminal work, Lipsky (1980) elaborates the main functions - determining eligibility of clients, conveying information and initiating the process of service provision and taking the application in the first-level encounter. Mostly, these functions are performed by lower level workers such as receptionists, secretaries or clerks who provide information in person or over the telephone to assist the clients. Lipsky further argues that the street-level bureaucrats do so in order to manage the constraints and challenges they face and experience in their routine actions.

In Lipsky’s (1980) work, the categorization of client is one of the most common patterns of the informal behaviour of street-level bureaucrats to ration the services. As per Prottas' (1979) view, categorization of people under the role of the SLBs transforms ordinary citizens into the administrative procurable attributes. In Wright’s (2003) view, the lower level staff are the ones first contacted by the clients and are also the first to exercise discretion i.e. categorization of the clients.

Giving and withholding information is another form of rationing service in street-level bureaucracy (Lipsky, 1980). Lipsky’s argument is based on the experience of giving or withholding information to the clients in two different ways. The first involves favouritism, whereby SLBs provide some clients with privileged information permitting them to manipulate the system better than others. The second is the way in which clients experience confusing jargon, elaborate procedures and arcane practices that act as barriers to understanding on how to operate effectively within the system (Lipsky, 1980: p90).

In the field of policy implementation research, the use of terminology is a little inconsistent. State or federal government service employees are sometimes addressed as “street-level bureaucrats”, e.g. in the works of Lipsky (1980), Riccucci (2005a), and Brodkin (1997, 2006), or as “front-line workers” Riccucci (2005b) or “line-level workers”, e.g. in the work of Vinzant and Crothers (1998). In this paper, I will use the term “street-level bureaucrats” (SLBs) and “front-line workers” interchangeably to refer to state forest officials including district forest officers (DFOF), assistant forest officers (AFOs), rangers, foresters and forest guards from the DoF. The “CFUGs ” and “clients” are also used interchangeably in this paper.

3.Method and Data

The empirical data used in this paper was collected specifically for the doctoral research work dealing with the SLBs in community forestry policy implementation in Nepal during 2009 and 2010. Mixed methods, involving both qualitative and quantitative approaches were used for data collection and analysis. The semi-structured face-to-face interview guidelines and the survey questionnaires were designed by operationalizations of the abstract and theoretical aspects of the street-level bureaucracy and services rationed by narrowing down into the three variables i.e. service demand, supply of services and routine action. A purposive sampling technique was employed to select the respondents from the study site.

Primary data was gathered by means of semi-structured face-to-face interviews and survey with government forest officials from six DFOs of Nepal. Out of the total number of 4,850 technical staff in the DoF, 458 works in six study districts, among which 100 respondents (18 forest officers, 52 rangers and 30 forest assistants) were selected for the questionnaire survey and face-to-face semi- structured interviews. In the first stage, the survey was carried out, and later on face-to-face interviews were conducted. Similarly, 50 respondents were surveyed and interviewed from 45 CFUGs.

The primary data was complimented with results from participatory observations, while the secondary data included the literature and analysis of the policy documents. The semi- structured face-to-face interviews were recorded and transcribed, while MAXQDA 2007 was used for coding in order to explore and identify themes relevant to the theoretical framework used in this study. The interviews were conducted in Nepali and translated into English by the author.

4. Result

SLBs and clients: Service provided and received

In the survey, CFUGs were asked about the frequency of requests for services made to SLBs as well as visits by SLBs to CFUGs over the last two years. The frequency distribution regarding the request and receipt of services is presented in Table 1 below. Table 1 indicates that there is a gap between services demand from the clients and services provided. The second column in Table 1 shows that CFUGs’ requests for services are rather high. But the SLBs are not able to fulfill the demand of the clients (last column in Table 1). Almost all SLB respondents agreed that they could not meet the service demand. Interviews revealed that sheer financial shortages and insufficient human resources in the DFOs were the inter-connected reasons behind this.

Table 1: Frequency of service requests from clients and responses from SLBs

Items (last two years) Services requested by CFUGs Services received from SLBs
≤3 times 7(14%) 25(50%)
4-8 times 27(54%) 18(36%)
9-13 times 13(26%) 7(14%)
≥13 times 3(6%) 0(0%)

Source: Field survey, 2010.

The survey respondents were also asked about their perception of the adequacy of the services provided and received from forestry agencies. A five-point Likert scale (where 1 indicates “completely insufficient” and 5 indicates “completely sufficient”) was used. As shown in Table 2, more than 90% of SLBs agreed that the level of service provided was not sufficient for the clients (see first row in Table 2). Similarly, more than 95% of clients reported that the service received from SLBs were not adequate for them. The mean value derived from the perception of clients is a little lower (MCLIENTS =2.0) than that of SLBs (MSLBs =2.8). It shows that the perception of clients is more cynical than that of SLBs.

The information from interviews also substantiates the results of the survey. As viewed by CFUG's respondents, they have not received the services as per their demands and faced several problems in running the daily activities of the CF (e.g., delay in approval of product harvest plan, delay in Operational Plan (OPs) revision) as a result of the inadequate services provided by the forest agency. The interviews revealed that the views of the SLBs and CFUGs do not differ much. Some of the rangers agreed with the clients by saying that the services provided to the CFUGs have been less than adequate. They added that they were under pressure to fulfill a variety of demands.

The clients were also asked about their level of satisfaction with the services of forestry authorities. Regarding the satisfaction with services received, more than 95% of respondents were not satisfied. The numbers presented in second row of Table 2 indicate that the satisfaction level was very low (mean value MCLIENTS =2.2). The interviews also substantiate the below presented statistics, agreeing that the CFUGs also seek services from other non-state service providers (e.g. NGOs, bilateral projects and federations).

SLBs and coping mechanism

Lipsky (1980) presents several coping mechanisms that SLBs develop when dealing with their clients under limited resource conditions and unlimited service demands from their clients.


Table 2: Adequacy and Satisfaction on service provided and received

Dimension SLBs(N=100) Clients (N=50)
  Responses Category (%) Scale Average Responses Category (%) Scale


Very Low Very High   Very Low Very High  
1 2 3 4 5   1 2 3 4 5  
Adequacy of services provided/received 3 32 57 7 1 2.8 20 54 24 2 0 2.0
Satisfaction with services received a 10 64 22 4 0 2.2

Source: Field survey, 2010.

Note: a denotes that this category was not applicable to front-line workers



As presented above, the front-line workers at the DoF have been facing high service demand and heavy resource shortfall situation. The front-line workers were asked how they handled such a situation in order to get the job done and satisfy their clients.

SLBs and gate keeping

The open-ended interviews showed that the rangers of the planning section at the DFOs are the ones who act as “gate keepers”, but in different ways. For example, they first are involved in evaluating and verifying OPs, which are of great importance and are to be forwarded urgently to the DFOFs for approval. If the DFOFs are not satisfied, CFUGs are asked to submit other supplementing documents; and it is again the rangers who act as “transmission belts”. In some cases, OPs send back to the CFUGs and asked to revise the whole process. The planning section staff reported that more than 50% of the documents they receive do not fulfill the basic requirements to be forwarded to the DFOFs. The rangers in the planning section are mostly aware of the annual targets and the annual progress of the DFOs. They more or less control the handing over process or approve the OPs while referring to the annual targets. If it is more than their target, they simply mark it as “pending” and request CFUG to make a visit at a (much) later date.

If rangers of planning sections are overwhelmed with work they simply put the OPs in their desk and set its status to “pending”. When a CFUG tries to get the status of OP, they are informed that documents are being checked and further investigation is required. According to a planning ranger, there is no problem on putting a document on hold for 6-12 months, if they feel they need to do so. On the other hand, they suggest improving the quality of documents as well as the capacity of the local users for managing the forest and to continue the protection works .One of the rangers stated:

In fact, the DFOFs have no time for checking the nitty-gritty contents of OPs. Internally, we have to acknowledge the interest of DFOFs and pressure of CFUGs when it comes to forwarding documents. The frequency varies according to the intentions of the DFOFs and his/her willingness for approval. In most of the cases, the DFOFs are totally reliant on the planning ranger. If we do not feel comfortable with the OPs, then we keep the OPs in our desk without informing the DFOFs or simply informing the CFUG that the documents are under investigation by the DFOFs. (Ran35)

SLBs and categorization of clients

Interviews with SLBs show that the forest officials have categorized their clients in two different ways. The first is based on performance (good, medium, poor) and the second is according to the formation date (newly handed-over CFUGs or old CFUGs).

SLBs employ different criteria to sub-categorize the CFUGs on performance-based judgments at the operational level. They include bio-physical as well as socio-economic attributes to develop the indicators to evaluate the CFUGs. Most of the ranger respondents said that they developed and applied such informal criteria and indicators and categorized the CFUGs as good, medium or poor to support the needy clients. Based on such criteria, they make plans and provide specific support. For example, the CFUGs, who lie under the poor category in terms of institutional management, are given priority while providing services like training in the field of institutional capacity building. According to the DFOFs, they focus on livelihood improvement services for those CFUGs who have enough financial resources or if the program can be conducted with little financial support from outsiders. Some of the rangers, AFOs and DFOFs viewed that the transformation of CFUGs into different categories illustrates that services may be offered through positive discrimination.

In reference to the second criterion, SLBs state that they visit the newly handed-over CFUGs more often than the old ones because the new CFUGs exhibit rather less confidence in conducting regular activities and need more moral support from the forest agency.

Deliberate withholding of information

From the open-ended interviews, the study found that the front-line workers are sometimes a bit skeptical when providing information to the CFUGs. Some of the ranger respondents perceived that it was a common strategy to reduce the workload. One of the rangers said:

Sometimes we censor information with the aim of keeping CFUGs less aware and doing so spontaneously provides the room to use our power as well as to reduce our workload. We have had some bitter experiences when we had provided all the relevant information regarding all the legal provisions to the CFUGs and not received a proper response that led to an undermined result. (Ran45)

Some of the SLBs also agree with the above mentioned statement and add that in daily practice they sometimes do not deliver all of the information to CFUGs. First, they observe and evaluate the level of awareness of the CFUGs and then decide whether to inform them or not. They argue that when the awareness level of the CFUGs increases, it is easier to deliver messages to them. Moreover, in the SLBs' view, then it may be easier for the clients to understand exactly what the SLBs are saying. Rangers and DFOFs stated that they have be more cautious while communicating about the circulars of the Ministry /DoF, which would curtail the rights of forest users that are granted by the formal policy. In such cases, they do not deliver or communicate the messages to CFUGs immediately. Most of the rangers and AFOs agreed that this strategy helps them avoid immediate conflict with the clients. Afterwards, they get plenty of time to discuss with their colleagues or supervisors so as to handle the situation.

SLBs and CF formation process

During the face-to-face semi-structured interviews, SLBs were asked about the CF formation process (as outlined in the community forestry operational guideline and manual). The interviews show that the SLBs are taking shortcuts during the formation of the CFUGs.

The rangers claimed that they know they have to follow the guidelines properly. However, they are more guided by the work situation than the guidelines themselves. In the study districts, 95% of the rangers were found to be just following the strategies, which were rather faster and easier for them. In spite of being very clear on CF guidelines, which mandate on household visits, participatory resources inventories, discussions on demand and supply capacity of the forest, while developing the constitution and OPs etc, but in practice, the front-line workers make only a few visits to the households. According to some of the clients, they consult only the elite from the community during the preparation of the CF constitution and OPs. One of the rangers shared his experience:

We are aware of the whole process but we are bound to adopt short- cuts while forming CFUGs. If we follow the entire process, it may take more than 2 months to form even one CFUG .We do not have enough funds to be involved for a long time, as we have only about NRS 2500 for each CFUG. This amount is not even enough to manage stationery and printing costs. We are also not provided enough allowances for the CFUG formation process and have to do expenses on our own. This means that sometimes we might not follow the whole process as dictated in the policy guidelines and directives. (Ran43)

SLBS and financial partnership strategy

The information obtained from the interviews also shows that the CFUGs have very high expectations from government forest agency in spite of the limited resources. However, front-line workers in each study district have adopted an informal strategy of financial partnership with the CFUGs. Under this strategy, the CFUGs get some monetary support (about 10–20% of the total program cost). I present here two examples. First, the forest user group produces seedlings with technical help and a little monetary input from the forest agency. Later, the forest offices buy the seedlings for plantation purposes within the district. Second, the forest agency provides technical support as well as some amount of cash as matching fund for income generation activities for marginalized groups. Most of the forest officials were of the opinion that this strategy ultimately helps initiate livelihood enhancing activities among the forest user groups and also makes it easier for them to handle their clients.

5 Discussion

The study indicates that the work conditions of front-line workers at the DoF are marked by high level of service demands from their clients and inadequate financial and human resources to meet such demands. As discussed earlier, the workload of the DFOs and their subordinate offices is very high. The ever-increasing number of CFUGs is the main reason for this. The national level data shows that about four CFs are handed over to CFUGs every day. Even more pressing demands were found in the study districts. At the time when this study was carried out, no other literature substantially specified the forest officials as street-level bureaucrats in policy implementation research. This finding is in line with the work conditions and experiences as illustrated in a bulk of other street-level bureaucracy researches (i.e. high workload, caseload and limited resource at organization), Lipsky (1980); Riccucci et al, 2004; Riccucci, (2005).

The study shows that in the above outlined work conditions SLBs have introduced some coping strategies to overcome the challenges posed at the front-line while handling their routine work and enforcing laws and regulations into action. of the strategies adopted, there are those that are similar to the portrayed in the street-level bureaucracy literature, whereas some derive from and are built into the experiences of SLBs in CF implementation. This finding is also highly consistent with the findings demonstrated in the policy implementation research. The development of informal strategies or practices designed to meet the public services demand in the condition of organizational resources constraint is a form of service rationing (see Lipsky, 1980; Prottas, 1979; Brodkin, 1997; Meyers and Vorsanger, 2003). Lipsky (1980) elaborates that rationing services is a way of responding to the resources problem, as he calls these informal services rationing “coping behaviours” or “coping mechanisms.

The results presented in this study help us argue that the SLBs, by using the gate-keeping strategy, were able to reduce the pressure and demand of CFUGs for a short period of time. The rangers as transmission belt play gate-keeping role in rationing the services. This finding is exactly in line with the findings of Lipsky (1980) and Wright, 2003). From his work, Lipsky (1980) noted that the lower level staff members are involved in gate-keeping role.

The study indicates that the SLBs were found to have employed different criteria to categorize forest user groups in the process of service delivery. Furthermore, the most commonly used criteria were performance of CFUGs and the year of handover. In this context, it can be argued that categorization based on the performance of CFUGs such as good, medium and poor qualifies CFUGs to a specific category. Furthermore, it can be argued that categorization is a real cognitive division or mapping of the clients. It also provides an opportunity for identifying needy clients who deserve a specific kind of services over others. It can be argued that the categorization of clients is solely based on the professional and personal judgment of SLBs. This finding is roughly consistent with Lipsky’s work. Lipsky (1980) illustrated that various organizational and societal factors, among others, encourage SLBs to engage in the categorization of their clients.

The study shows that SLBs deliberately withhold information during the service delivery to minimize their workload. These finding are also in line with Lipsky’s (1980) arguments that providing and withholding information are discretionary activities, from which SLBs can ration services in a limited resources environment. The important question here is, why they do so? From the results, two different but complimenting attributes can be driven that facilitate the use of the mechanism. First, SLBs intended to minimize the demand from their clients. Second, they resorted to withhold information to reduce the risk of potential conflict between SLBs and clients, while enacting contradictory departmental circulars and orders which intended to curtail users’ rights. These pieces of findings are also in line with the findings noted by Sunder (2001) and Maynard-Moody and Musheno (2003). Sunder (2001) on joint forest management in India illustrated that governmental staff often control the clients by deliberately withholding information, leaving the forest fringe community completely unaware of rules for budgetary allocation or fund usage. The Maynard-Moody and Musheno (2003) described the examples of teachers and police officers regarding assaults by their students and clients; argue that such circumstances encourage SLBs to use their discretion to make their work safer.

The findings point out that shortcuts process are used as part of an informal strategy in the CF formation process, which helps them overcome both the shortage of resources and time constraints.

The financial partnership with the CFUGs serves as a good example of improving efficacy for finding pragmatic solutions to the financial problem of CF implementation as well as to get the job done effectively. It can be argued that financial partnership with CFUGs also contributes to a sense of managerial satisfaction. This finding more or less is also in line with Lipsky’s (1980) argument that the SLBs attempt to increase efficacy to resolve the resource problem at street- level work with the close contact with their clients.

6. Conclusion

An important finding of this research is that the front-line workers’ work conditions in forest bureaucracy in general, and particularly in CF implementation, is inadequate financial and human resources as well as high level of service demand from their clients. This finding is consistent with findings of the prior implementation research and literature demonstrating that public service workers are involved in quite different public organizations. However, these workers often tend to have notably similar work conditions, which include: unlimited demand from the clients and limited resources and responsibility of huge caseloads (see Lipsky, 1980, Prottas, 1979, Riccucci, 2005a, Meyers and Vorsanger, 2003). Another key finding of this paper is that forest officials prioritize their activities through various informal procedures, behaviors and strategies as well as built-up mechanisms. These archetypal, informal coping strategies help them manage their substantial workload and almost unlimited service demand from CFUGs, especially in light of the sheer shortfall of organizational resources (both financial and human) in their organization.

In this paper, I have examined the street-level coping mechanism in CF implementation based on the perceptual judgments of SLBs and clients that is slightly substantiated by “objective” data. Future research is needed to systematically corroborate it through the subjective and more “objective” data (including multi-variate analysis), which may provide a better understanding of the causal relationship between the coping mechanism adapted by the SLBs and the degree of their satisfaction on getting the job done.