Research Master student Maurits van Leeuwen, prof. Steven Van de Walle and I received a NWO Research Talent (Dutch NSF, €200.000) grant to study service sabotage in the public sector. Based hereon, Maurits van Leeuwen received a four year PhD-position at Utrecht University School of Governance. Steven and I will act as his supervisors.



Civil servants are ignoring and discouraging citizens’ : Understanding service sabotage in the public sector


Abstract on service sabotage

When street-level bureaucrats intentionally reduce service quality, they sabotage public service, which has direct negative consequences for—often-vulnerable—citizens with few alternatives. However, how, when, and why street-level bureaucrats engage in these behaviors is unclear. The proposed project systematically addresses these lacunas by developing a behavioral public administration perspective on public service sabotage. I use literature and methods from public administration, behavioral sciences, and management, in a three-stage multi-method approach, using a systematic literature review, qualitative inquiry, and a field experiment. The project contributes to interdisciplinary theory development and ultimately better public service.


Introduction to service sabotage


“Workers ignored or even discouraged clients’ interests in work and self-sufficiency. Clients were never explicitly informed about the obligations or the opportunities created by welfare policy changes; some were given wrong or misleading information.” (Meyers et al., 1998:15-16)

The quote above comes from a study of American social workers implementing a welfare program. These welfare workers, who are street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 2010) or frontline workers (Maynard-Moody & Musheno, 2003), willingly pervert public service by ignoring citizen-clients requests for support and even fudge paperwork to stifle service eligibility. Using related research in marketing, I call these behaviors public service sabotage: ‘organisational member [behavior] intentionally designed to negatively affect service’ (Harris & Ogbonna, 2006: 543).

Linked to ‘the dark side of service dynamics’ (Harris & Ogbonna, 2009), service sabotage is particularly relevant for the public sector because—in contrast to private customers—citizen-clients cannot opt for alternative providers when not served well. Moreover, service sabotage is harmful in the public sector because street-level bureaucrats are responsible for making decisive decisions that affect the lives of—often already vulnerable—citizens.


Core sources



More information

Main applicant (P.I.): Dr. Lars Tummers,

Co-applicant:  Prof. dr. Steven Van de Walle,

PhD-student: Maurits van Leeuwen, BA,

Link to NWO website

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