The Role of Discretion in the Age of Automation

  • Anette C. M. PetersenEmail author
  • Lars Rune Christensen
  • Thomas T. Hildebrandt


This paper examines the nature of discretion in social work in order to debunk myths dominating prevalent debates on digitisation and automation in the public sector. Social workers have traditionally used their discretion widely and with great autonomy, but discretion has increasingly come under pressure for its apparent subjectivity and randomness. In Denmark, our case in point, the government recently planned to standardise laws to limit or remove discretion where possible in order for automation of case management to gain a foothold. Recent studies have focused on discretion in the public sector, but few have examined it explicitly and as part of real cases. As a consequence, they often leave the myths about discretion unchallenged. Inspired by the literature on discretion and CSCW research on rules in action, this study reports on an empirical investigation of discretion in child protection services in Denmark. The results of our analysis provide a new understanding of discretion as a cooperative endeavour, based on consultation and skill, rather than an arbitrary or idiosyncratic choice. In this manner, our study contradicts the myth of discretion inherent in the automation agenda. Correspondingly, we ask for attention to be given to systems that integrate discretion with technology rather than seek to undermine it directly or get around it surreptitiously. In this age of automation, this is not only an important but also an urgent task for CSCW researchers to fulfil.


Social work Decision-making Discretion Administrative work Casework Rules in action Automation Digitisation Digital-ready legislation 



This research was conducted as part of a project entitled ‘Effective co-created and complication adaptive case management for knowledge workers’ (EcoKnow) and supported by a grant from the Innovation Fund Denmark. Special thanks to all the participants who generously shared their time, experience and knowledge for the purpose of this study. We are also grateful to Richard Harper for his insightsful comments on earlier drafts and to the anonymous reviewers and journal editors for their immensely helpful recommendations.


  1. Alkhatib, Ali; and Michael Bernstein (2019). Street–Level Algorithms: A Theory at the Gaps Between Policy and Decision: CHI 2019. Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Glasgow, Scotland, UK, 4–9 May 2019, New York: ACM Press, pp. 1–13.Google Scholar
  2. Barfoed, Elizabeth Martinell; and Katarina Jacobsson (2012). Moving from ‘gut feeling’ to ‘pure facts’: Launching the ASI interview as part of in-service training for social workers. Nordic Social Work Research, vol 2, no. 1, pp. 5–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Berrick, Jill D.; Sue Peckover; Tarja Pösö; and Marit Skiveness (2015). The formalized framework for decision-making in child protection care orders: A cross-country analysis. Journal of European Social Policy, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 366–378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Biestek, Felix P. (1957). The Casework Relationship. Chicago: Loyola University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Black, Julia (2001). Managing discretion. ARLC Conference Papers on Penalties: Policy, Principles and Practice in Government Regulation.
  6. Bovens, Mark; and Stavros Zouridis (2002). From street-level to system-level bureaucracies: How information and communication technology is transforming administrative discretion and constitutional control. Public Administration Review, vol. 62, no. 2, pp. 174–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cabitza, Federico; and Carla Simone (2013). Computational Coordination Mechanisms: A tale of a struggle for flexibility. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), vol 22, pp. 475–529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Caspersen, Marianne; and Charlotte Laustsen (2009). Systematisk sagsbehandling i børnesager - principper og arbejdsgange. Denmark: UC Vest Press.Google Scholar
  9. Cheraghi-Sohi, Sudeh; and Michael Calnan (2013). Discretion or discretions? Delineating professional discretion: The case of English medical practice. Social Science and Medicine, vol. 96, pp. 52–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Christensen, Lars Rune (2013). Coordinative Practices in the Building Process: An Ethnographic Perspective. London: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Digitaliseringsstyrelsen (2018). Vejledning om digitaliseringsklar lovgivning.
  12. Ebsen, Frank (2018). Decision-making in social work. Nordic Social Work Research, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 1–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. European Commission (2019). The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI).
  14. Evans, Tony (2010). Professionals, managers and discretion: Critiquing street-level bureaucracy. The British Journal of Social Work, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 368–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Evans, Tony; and John Harris (2004). Street-Level Bureaucracy, Social Work and the (Exaggerated) Death of Discretion. British Journal of Social Work, vol. 34, pp. 871–895.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Finansministeriet (2018). Bred politisk aftale skal gøre lovgivningen klar til digitalisering.
  17. Frederiksen, Lærke Øland (2018). Skal en computer kunne tvangsfjerne et barn? Socialrådgiveren, vol. 10, no. 18, p 26.Google Scholar
  18. Gilson, Lucy (2015). Lipsky’s Street Level Bureaucracy. In Martin Lodge; Edward C. Page; and Steven J. Balla (eds): Oxford Handbook of Classics in Public Policy and Administration. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1–24.Google Scholar
  19. Hagendorff, Thilo; and Katharina Wezel (2019). 15 challenges for AI: Or what AI (currently) can’t do. AI & Society, pp. 1–11.Google Scholar
  20. Hammersley, Martyn (2005). What can the literature on communities of practice tell us about educational research? Reflections on some recent proposals. International Journal of Research and Method in Education, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 5–21.Google Scholar
  21. Harper, Richard; David Randall; and Wes Sharrock (2016). Choice: The Sciences of Reason in the 21st Century: A Critical Assessment. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  22. Hørby, Anita (2015). Consolidation Act on Social Services.
  23. Høybye-Mortensen, Matilde (2013). Decision-Making Tools and Their Influence on Caseworkers’ Room for Discretion. British Journal of Social Work, pp. 1–16.Google Scholar
  24. Høybye-Mortensen, Matilde (2014). I velfærdsstatens frontlinje: Administration, styring og beslutningstagning, vol. 1. Denmark: Hans Reitzels Forlag.Google Scholar
  25. Høybye-Mortensen, Matilde; and Peter Ejbye-Ernst (2018). The long way to data-driven decision-making: How do casework registrations become management information? STS Encounters, vol. 10, no 2.2 pp. 5–36.Google Scholar
  26. Jensen, Dan (2017). It-minister Sophie Løhde: Lovgivning står i vejen for succesfuld digitalisering.
  27. Jordan, Brigitte. (1996). Ethnographic Workplace Studies and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. In The Design of Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Groupware Systems. Holland: Elsevier Science B. V., pp. 17–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jorna, Frans; and Pieter Wagenaar (2007). The ‘Iron Cage’ Strengthened? Discretion and Digital Discipline. Public Administration, vol. 85, no. 1, pp. 189–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Justesen, Lise; and Ursula Plesner (2018). Fra skøn til algoritme: Digitaliseringsklar lovgivning og automatisering af administrativ sagsbehandling. Tidsskrift for Arbejdsliv, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 9–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Keymolen, Esther; and Dennis Broeders (2011). Innocence Lost: Care and Control in Dutch Digital Youth Care. British Journal of Social Work, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 41–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kosar, Kevin R. (2011). Review: Street Level-Bureaucracy: The Dilemmas Endure. Public Administration Review, vol. 71, no. 2, pp. 299–302.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Larsson, Bengt; and Bengt Jacobsson (2013). Discretion in the “Backyard of Law”: Case handling of debt relief in Sweden. Professions and Professionalism, vol. 3. no. 1, pp. 1–17.Google Scholar
  33. Lave, Jean; and Etienne Wenger (1991). Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Lipsky, Michael (1969). Toward a theory of street-level bureaucracy. Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin.Google Scholar
  35. Lipsky, Michael (1980). Street-Level Bureaucracy: The Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  36. Molander, Anders (2016). Discretion in the Welfare State: Social Rights and Professional Judgement. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Møller, Marie Østergaard (2016). “She isn’t Someone I Associate with Pension”—A Vignette Study of Professional Reasoning. Professions and Professionalism, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 1–20.Google Scholar
  38. Nyathi, Nhlanganiso (2018). Child protection decision-making: social workers’ perceptions. Journal of Social Work Practice, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 189–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. O’Sullivan, Terence (1999). Decision making in social work. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited.Google Scholar
  40. Pasquale, Frank (2019). A Rule of Persons, Not Machines: The Limits of Legal Automation. The George Washington Law Review, vol. 87, no. 1, pp. 1–55.Google Scholar
  41. Pedersen, Morten Jarlbæk (2018). Morten Jarlbæk: Succesfuld digitalisering kræver bevidste valg – og fravalg.
  42. Plesner, Ursula; Lise Justesen; and Cecilie Glerup (2018). The transformation of work in digitized public sector organizations. Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 31, no. 5, pp. 1176–1190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Ponnert, Lina; and Kirsten Svensson (2016). Standardisation - the end of professional discretion? European Journal of Social Work, vol. 19, no. 3–4, pp. 586–599.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Pycock, Jonathan (1999). Designing Systems: Studies of Design Practice, Unpublished PhD, Manchester University.Google Scholar
  45. Randall, David; Richard Harper; and Mark Rouncefield (2007). Fieldwork for Design: Theory and Practice. London: Springer Science and Business Media.Google Scholar
  46. Redaelli, Ilaria (2015). Understanding Planning Practices: Insights from a Situated Study on an Italian Airport. (Ph.D. in Communication Sciences), Università della Svizzera italiana.Google Scholar
  47. Redaelli, Ilaria; and Antonella Carassa (2018). New Perspectives on Plans: Studying Planning as an Instance of Instructed Action. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 107–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rouncefield, Mark; and Peter Tolmie (2016). Ethnomethodology at work. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Schmidt, Kjeld (2011). Cooperative Work and Coordinative Practices: Contributions to the Conceptual Foundations of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). London: Springer.Google Scholar
  50. Suchman, Lucy (1987). Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Suchman, Lucy (1989). Notes on Computer Support for Cooperative Work. Working Paper WP-12. Department of Computer Science. University of Jyvaskyla. Jyvaskyla, Finland.Google Scholar
  52. Svendsen, Idamarie Leth (2016). Managing complex child law - social workers’ decision making under Danish legal regulation. Social Work and Society, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 1–12.Google Scholar
  53. Taylor, Brian; and Andrew Whittaker (2018). Professional judgement and decision-making in social work. Journal of Social Work Practice, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 105–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Varavithya, Wanchai; and Vatcharaporn Esichaikul (2005). The Collaborative Model to Support Discretionary Decision-making in E-government.eGOV05. eGovernment Workshop ‘05, Brunel University, West London, UK, 13 September 2005. Pp. 1–15.Google Scholar
  55. Vega, Arturo; Mike Chiasson; and David Brown (2013). Understanding the Causes of Informal and Formal Discretion in the Delivery of Enterprise Policies: A Multiple Case Study. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 102–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wagenaar, Hendrick (2004). “Knowing” the Rules: Administrative Work as Practice. Public Administration Review, vol. 61, no. 6, pp. 643–656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wallander, Lisa; and Anders Molader (2014). Disentangling Professional Discretion: A Conceptual and Methodological Approach. Professions and Professionalism, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 1–19.Google Scholar
  58. Webb, Stephen. A. (2001). Some Considerations on the Validity of Evidence-based Practice in Social Work. British Journal of Social Work, vol. 31, pp. 57–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Zang, Xiaowei (2016). Research on Street-Level Discretion in the West: Past, Present, and the Future. Chinese Political Science Review, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 610–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Zeleznikow, John (2000). Building Decision Support Systems in Discretionary Legal Domains. International Review of Law, Computers and Technology, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 341–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Zisman, Michael David (1977). Representations, Specifications and Automation of Office Procedures. (PhD dissertation), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IT University of Copenhagen, Department of Business ITCopenhagen SDenmark
  2. 2.University of Copenhagen, Department of Computer ScienceCopenhagen NDenmark

Personalised recommendations