Public Servants at the Regulatory Front Lines: Street-Level Enforcement in Theory and Practice

Paulien de Winter*, Marc Hertogh

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


This chapter focuses on the central role of public servants in street-level enforcement. The central aim is to contribute to the understanding of “street-level enforcement” (De Boer, Street-level enforcement style: A multidimensional measurement instrument. International Journal of Public Administration 42 (5): 380–391, 2019) in theory and practice. To analyze the important work of public servants at the regulatory frontlines, we use two conceptual lenses. To illustrate the different theoretical concepts, and to assess some of the strengths and weaknesses of the literature, both conceptual lenses will be applied in a case study about the enforcement of welfare laws in the Netherlands. The first lens is the concept of “street-level bureaucracy.” Lipsky (Street-level bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1980) famously argued that the decisions of street-level bureaucrats, and the routines that they establish, effectively become the public policies they carry out. This chapter shows that this not only applies to public servants who are involved in policy implementation, but also to those working in the field of regulatory enforcement. The Dutch case shows, for example, that a punitive law like the “Welfare Fraud Act” does not automatically lead to strict and punitive enforcement. The second lens that we use is the concept of the regulatory “enforcement style.” Based on how public servants apply the rules and how they respond to rule violations, we were able to get a more detailed understanding of how public officials act in their daily contacts with clients. In the Dutch case, public servants use three enforcement styles: strict punishment, flexible punishment, and flexible persuasion. Finally, based on this review of the literature and the findings from the case study, the chapter will discuss several future challenges for both practitioners and students in the field of street-level enforcement.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStreet-Level Enforcement in Theory and Practice
EditorsHelen Sullivan, Helen Dickinson, Hayley Henderson
Place of PublicationCham
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Print)978-3-030-29979-8
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


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