Street level bureaucrats in a relational state

Image: Autonomous Region of Bougainville

Event details


Date & time

Tuesday 01 December 2020


Webinar via Zoom
ANU Canberra


Associate Professor Miranda Forsyth, Dr Gordon Peake

The fourteen government ministries of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville have sumptuous designations such as ’Personnel Management and Administrative Services’ and ‘Police, Corrective Services and Justice’. There’s often fewer people inside the offices than words in the designation.

Our research seeks to answer a question we’ve both had whilst twiddling our thumbs in these offices: what do the bureaucrats of this administration do when there is little state for them to represent?

For answers, we went to the literature that builds upon Lipsky’s (1969) insights into the critical role played by ‘street-level bureaucracy’ in policy delivery. Our work started us thinking about the importance of relationships in shaping regulatory action, and the wider application of our findings.

Our fieldwork lead us to propose that ‘street level bureaucracy’ in a place like Bougainville can best be understood through utilising two different lenses of the state.

The first lens is the widely understood ‘Weberian’ or ‘bureaucratic state’. The second lens is the ‘relational state’. Despite having no official presence, it actually does a lot of governance on-the-ground. Bureaucrats are networked with church denominations, ex-combatants, powerful individuals and their retinues, chiefs, matriarchs, business and mining interests. At different levels, at different times, with different intensities, all are street level bureaucrats of the relational state.

Bougainville is hardly the only place where human relationships – good and bad, strong and weak – help explain why decisions are taken or not taken, why things work out the way they do. Relationships are the marrow of much fiction and narrative non-fiction, but less prominently addressed head on in academic literature.

The webinar presents our research, forthcoming in a special issue of Public Administration and Development, and serves as the first opportunity to discuss whether there is wider application for conceptualising the role of relationships in shaping regulation.


Miranda Forsyth is an Associate Professor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) in the College of Asia and Pacific at ANU. Prior to coming to ANU, she was a senior lecturer in criminal law at the law school of the University of the South Pacific, based in Port Vila, Vanuatu. She is the author of A Bird that Flies with Two Wings: Kastom and State Justice Systems in Vanuatu (2009) ANU ePress and co-author of_ Weaving Intellectual Property Policy in Small island Developing States_, Intersentia 2015.

Gordon Peake is a Visitor at RegNet for 2020-2021. For the last fifteen years, Dr Peake has been engaging with issues of governance and post-conflict settlement in the Asia-Pacific region. He has lived and worked in Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea.

Felicity Gray is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University (ANU). Felicity’s work examines unarmed, nonviolent strategies for the protection of civilians in armed conflict, with a particular focus on how this interacts with and challenges the use of force for civilian protection. She received an Endeavour Scholarship to undertake this research, with her work spanning Lebanon, Berlin, New York City, and Myanmar, recently completed extended field work in South Sudan.

Mary Ivec is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University (ANU). She holds post-graduate degrees in social policy, social work and counselling having completed her Bachelor of Arts (Sociology and Politics) at the ANU. Mary has over thirty years experience in human services ranging from the not-for-profit sector, government policy development, social work education and clinical practice as a mental health social worker.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet