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The Role of Discretion in the Age of Automation


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.

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  1. Danish conference on ‘Digital-ready Legislation’ held on September 19th, 2018

  2. Course on ‘Digitising Professional’s Competences’ offered by Copenhagen Business School in 2018/2019


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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.

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Correspondence to Anette C. M. Petersen.

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Petersen, A.C.M., Christensen, L.R. & Hildebrandt, T.T. The Role of Discretion in the Age of Automation. Comput Supported Coop Work 29, 303–333 (2020).

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