How do frontline civil servants engage the public? Practices, embedded agency, and bricolage

Wieke Blijleven, Merlijn van Hulst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
2 Downloads (Pure)


Civil servants in local government are increasingly expected to engage and collaborate with citizens and stakeholders. This article takes a practice approach to develop a generic picture of everyday work at the front lines of public engagement, highlighting the relational and improvisational aspects of that work that, to date, have remained understudied. Our data and analyses build on the existing literature and contribute to it by describing five specific practices of civil servants. Based on our in-depth interviews with 45 frontline civil servants in the Netherlands, we found that civil servants try to bring together a range of different interests, values, perspectives, and resources by understanding the situation, building rapport and trust, developing shared resolutions, aligning processes “outside” and “inside” city hall, and supporting practically. Furthermore, we
substantiate the idea that the practices of frontline workers entail embedded agency, which we specifically label as bricolage. We demonstrate how agency is constrained and enabled by the local bureaucracy and its policies, and that civil servants seek alignment possibilities and resolutions.
Original languageEnglish
Article number0275074020983805
Pages (from-to)278-292
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Review of Public Administration
Issue number4
Early online date9 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • bricolage
  • citizen engagement
  • civil servants
  • embedded agency
  • frontline work
  • public encounters


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