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Street-level planning; the shifty nature of “local knowledge and practice”

Nina Holm Vohnsen (Section for Anthropology, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 13 July 2015




The purpose of this paper is to explore and problematizes one of the oft-cited reasons why the implementation of public policy and other development initiatives goes wrong – namely that there is a mismatch or antagonistic relationship between street-level worker’s decisions and priorities on the one hand and on the other hand the policy-makers’ or administrators’ directives and priorities.


The paper builds on seven months of ethnographic fieldwork set in a Danish municipal unit which administered the sickness benefit legislation.


Through the reading of an ethnographic example of implementation of labour market policy this paper suggests that when policy invariably is distorted at the administrative level it is not necessarily due to lack of will among street-level workers to comply with legislation or centrally devised directives but rather because: in practice, planning and implementation are concurrent processes that continuously feed into each other; and that the concerns and the “local knowledge and practice” that guide planning-implementation do not belong to individual people but are dynamic perspectives that individual people might take up in certain situations.


This challenges conventional descriptions of street-level workers as a distinct group of people with distinctive concerns and attitudes to their work. The paper suggests instead the metaphor “vector of concern” to capture the way street-level workers’ changes of perspectives might cause interventions to disintegrate and evolve in potentially conflicting directions.



The original research was funded by the Danish Ministry of Employment and Aarhus University from 2008 to 2011 as co-financed PhD research. Neither party have had any influence on the research undertaken or the results published. This present paper has been funded by the Carlsberg Foundation through a grant to pursue research into the workings of the Danish Civil Service.


Vohnsen, N.H. (2015), "Street-level planning; the shifty nature of “local knowledge and practice”", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 4 No. 2, pp. 147-161.



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