In her thought-provoking working paper, Lina Buchely makes the case for a new understanding of “bureaucratic activism” through a case study of women who work in Colombia’s Community Welfare Houses (CWH), a state-funded social program intended to improve the health and education of children. Bureaucratic activism is usually understood as the actions of state officials which are outside or explicitly against established laws; for example, a police officer who does not follow an existing protocol for handling a domestic violence case. Buchely demonstrates how many of these women, known as “community mothers,” exercise significant discretion in their role as “street level bureaucrats,” calling into question the “inevitability and certainty of the rule of the law” (p. 7). For example, although the stated aim of the CWHs is to benefit children, activist community mothers articulate and act upon an alternative vision of their work—supporting the needs of other women. Buchely’s analysis has many implications for the design of community programs intended to enhance welfare.
Given the decentralized nature of the program (which is run out of women’s homes) and their affiliation with a prominent government ministry, community mothers possess significant discretion which they regularly exercise to subvert program criteria, such as the program’s hours of operation or the acceptance/rejection of certain children. Early in the paper, Buchely provocatively claims, “community mothers benefit both from belonging and not belonging to the State” (p. 8). However, the text does not flesh out this intriguing assertion (one that might find echoes in the work of sociologist Nancy Naples), but rather illustrates how the discretion of community mothers manifests itself, and explicates a typology of bureaucratic activism based on (1) the social networks of community mothers and (2) their awareness of their discretionary authority.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, some scholars and policy makers assume that laws will be implemented exactly as written. Buchely explicitly seeks to combat this bias, and yet at times unwittingly follows a similar logic, noting for example that “daily life in the CWH is not mediated by…technical guideline[s] as would be expected” (p. 11; emphasis mine).
Why should we expect people to follow laws or policies precisely as written or intended? I think that we should expect that subjective decision-making and informal transactions of state and quasi-state actors in street level bureaucracies permeates much of their everyday routines. If we assume that contradictions between policy and practice are actually quite common, we can move beyond explaining why people don’t follow a particular policy, and instead try to explain why they do what they do, and what the various unintended consequences of these actions may be for differently situated individuals and communities.
In this vein, Buchely’s work prompted several important questions. What conditions affect the discretion exercised by street-level bureaucrats? In this instance, discretion may be paradoxically enabled by the state’s limited capacity for oversight and the considerable respect that affiliation with this specific program afforded community mothers in their neighborhoods. Would a less desirable government program with low oversight produce a similar kind of bureaucratic activism? How might these dynamics differ in the context of a highly politicized bureaucracy?
Here I think of my own research on the case of Nicaragua, which recently instituted neighborhood level “Family Councils” (Gabinetes de Familia), affiliated with the ruling Sandinista party, which are now charged with hearing gender-based violence cases before they go to the police. This worrisome development means that the already high levels of bureaucratic discretion found within Nicaragua’s criminal justice system will now be extended to highly political neighborhood groups which are unlikely to take women’s claims of domestic violence seriously. Indeed, even within Nicaragua’s specialized comisarias (women’s police stations, where the police are all women), the claims of women victims are often met with suspicion.
One particular incident I observed during my fieldwork exemplifies this dynamic. One morning as I sat in the waiting room of a local comisaria, a woman in her early 20s came in, clearly experiencing emotional distress. As she tearfully described her situation, the captain interjected, telling her she should go to a therapist first and return to the police when she knew what she wanted. In this situation, the official perceived the young woman’s emotional vulnerability as evidence that she was not yet prepared for the grueling legal process. This official used her discretion to punish the young woman for her perceived weakness rather than come to her aid. Over time, these kinds of practices reproduce particular hierarchies of femininity which limit some women’s access to legal justice.
Given these realities, is there not a risk that certain kinds of bureaucratic discretion may reproduce gendered, racial, and class-based hierarchies? For example, Buchely notes that community mothers tend to prefer the children of friends and family members, and actively seek to exclude or expel “bad people” (p. 19). This demonstrates that women and families with greater social capital (e.g. positive relationships with community mothers) are more likely to receive preferential treatment. Although activist community mothers intend to support women’s reproductive labor, clearly not all women and children are deemed worthy of such assistance. Thus, even within a fairly homogenous neighborhood, community mothers may perpetuate certain forms of social exclusion. In my view, more systematic attention is needed to these less positive implications to balance the author’s generally favorable portrayal of activist community mothers. Future research should address these questions by examining how different forms of bureaucratic discretion mitigate or exacerbate gender and racial inequalities.