Socialization at the Front Lines of Government ServiceUniversity of Pennsylvania Press American Governance: Politics, Policy, and Public Law
Bureaucrats are important symbols of the governments that employ them. Contrary to popular stereotypes, they determine much about the way policy is ultimately enacted and experienced by citizens. While we know a great deal about bureaucrats and their actions, we know little about their development. Are particular types of people drawn to government work, or are government workers forged by the agencies they work in? Put simply, are bureaucrats born, or are they made?
In Becoming Bureaucrats, Zachary W. Oberfield traces the paths of two sets of public servants—police officers and welfare caseworkers—from their first day on the job through the end of their second year. Examining original data derived from surveys and in-depth interviews, along with ethnographic observations from the author's year of training and work as a welfare caseworker, Becoming Bureaucrats charts how public-sector entrants develop their bureaucratic identities, motivations, and attitudes. Ranging from individual stories to population-wide statistical analysis, Oberfield's study complicates the long-standing cliché that bureaucracies churn out bureaucrats with mechanical efficiency. He demonstrates that entrants' bureaucratic personalities evolved but remained strongly tied to the views, identities, and motives that they articulated at the outset of their service. As such, he argues that who bureaucrats become and, as a result, how bureaucracies function, depends strongly on patterns of self-selection and recruitment.
Becoming Bureaucrats not only enriches our theoretical understanding of bureaucratic behavior but also provides practical advice to elected officials and public managers on building responsive, accountable workforces.
"Becoming Bureaucrats is a rich inquiry into a critical dimension of the creation of public services. I particularly appreciate Zachary Oberfield's general discussion, drawing on a deep reading of the field and his multi-faceted original research, of how the attitudes front line workers bring to their job, and their experience at work, interact to produce our everyday front line work force."—Michael Lipsky, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos
"A strong contribution to the literature on public service provision and bureaucratic politics. Oberfield's unique combination of qualitative and quantitative evidence about the acculturation of police officers and social workers into their respective organizations makes this an excellent work."—John Brehm, University of Chicago
- Winner of the Best Book Award for 2015 from the Public and Nonprofit Division of the Academy of Management