Cream-skimming at the frontline: The role of administrative literacy

Matthias Döring*, Sebastian Jilke

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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The notion of cream-skimming—defined as the propensity to prioritize clients who have a higher likelihood of meeting bureaucratic success criteria, including organizational goals—is at the heart of street-level bureaucracies. However, there is often no direct information available to street-level bureaucrats whether clients will actually meet bureaucratic success criteria. This study argues that street-level bureaucrats assess clients' potential to reach these criteria via their administrative literacy—a client's capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic information and services from public administrations—as displayed in social interactions. Therefore, this study elaborates on the role of clients' administrative literacy and its effects on cream-skimming behavior. Using data from two experiments, we show that public employees prioritize clients with higher levels of preparedness and effective communication strategies. These findings suggest that cream-skimming is not just a rational cost–benefit analysis, but strongly influenced by social dynamics within public encounters.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPublic Administration
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)1569-1586
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


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