Philip Rocco (University of California, Berkeley) and I developed a new article on how frontline workers cope with e-government reforms, specifically the Affordable Care Act (or ‘Obamacare’). It has been published in Public Administration Review and is entitled “Serving Clients When the Server Crashes: How Frontline Workers Cope with E-Government Challenges“. Furthermore, Philip Rocco developed a PAR-podcast, which takes you through the story in a mere 10 minutes!


Obamacare navigators help patients sign up for health insurance

Navigators helping sign up patient for health insurance. Image by CNN.


Implementing e-government in the contemporary American state is challenging. E-government places high technical demands on agencies and citizens in an environment of budget austerity and political polarization. Governments developing e-government policies often mobilize frontline workers—also termed “street-level bureaucrats”—to help citizens gain access to services. However, we know little about how frontline workers cope in these challenging circumstances. We aimed to fills this gap by studying frontline workers implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. We find that frontline workers “move toward clients” when coping with stress: they bend the rules, work overtime, and collaborate in order to help clients. They are less inclined to “move away” or “move against” clients, for instance, through rigid rule following and rationing. In other words, frontline workers try to serve clients, even “when the server crashes.” Frontline workers, then, can play a vital role in the successful implementation of e-government policies.

Practitioner Points

President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act in 2010 (East Room of the White House). AP Photo.

  1. Frontline workers cope with e-government service delivery in ways that are beneficial for clients, even in difficult circumstances. Hence, they can play a vital role in successfully delivering e-government.
  2. Frontline workers have a wealth of knowledge about implementation challenges, such as technical problems, impossible caseloads, and unclear rules. Their knowledge can improve implementation and should be gathered systematically.
  3. Despite extensive coping skills, frontline workers may also experience considerable strain when implementing e-government reforms. This can lead to burnout and/or turnover. Therefore, governments should pay particular attention to the challenges that frontline workers face in their daily work and try to address them.



We show that frontline workers implementing an essential e-government reform cope with stress by helping clients, even in adverse circumstances. In other words, frontline workers try to serve clients, even “when the server crashes.” This findings provide an important insight into frontline work in an e-government context. This article also adds to a growing number of studies suggesting that frontline workers in a range of countries, policy areas, and organizations behave in ways that are beneficial for clients.


Further reading


Tummers, Lars, Victor Bekkers, Evelien Vink, and Michael Musheno. 2015. Coping during Public Service Delivery: A Conceptualization and Systematic Review of the Literature. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. doi:10.1093/jopart/muu056.

Affordable Care Act

Thompson, Frank J. 2013. Health Reform, Polarization, and Public Administration. Public Administration Review 73(s1): S3-S12.

Frontline work

Maynard-Moody, Steven, and Michael Musheno. 2000. State Agent or Citizen Agent: Two Narratives of Discretion. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 10(2): 329-358.


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