Dangerous Clients: A Phenomenological Solution to Bureaucratic Oppression


Modern administrative agencies are often unnecessarily oppressive in their day-to-day contact with people. This article traces such oppression to status differences between agency employees and clients, their relationship as strangers to one another, the institutional pathologies of the agency and the divergent incentives to which the agency employees are subject. The article then considers three solutions to this problem that have been discussed in the academic literature regarding government agencies: the imposition of due process requirements, the shift to client-centered management, and the use of market or quasi-market mechanisms.

After critiquing all three solutions, the article proposes a new approach, adapted from the ombudsperson programs that are currently found in a variety of settings. It would provide clients with an opportunity to complain to an independent government official, who would be authorized to investigate and sanction agency employees who mistreated their clients. From a rational actor perspective, this would make the employees cautious about engaging in oppressive behavior. The article’s main argument, however, is based on a phenomenological model of human behavior. According to this model, the ability of clients to invoke sanctions against government officials provides them with higher status, and is likely to engender a sense of respect for clients among the employees. This will be translated in turn into more genuine, internalized efforts to treat clients in a courteous and non-oppressive manner.


Administrative Law | Human Rights Law | Law and Society

Date of this Version

March 2005