Discretionary responses in frontline encounters: balancing standardization with the ethics of office

Kirstine Zinck Pedersen, Anja Svejgaard Pors

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

Abstract

Policy reforms of public service encounters often seek to control, delegate, or eliminate discretion at the frontline. In this paper, we show that rather than eclipsing discretion, the technologies meant to standardize and optimize decision-making in public service delivery introduce rough categorizations and scripts for action that make new types of discretionary responses and workarounds necessary. Here, accounts of street-level discretion as grounded in self-serving coping strategies are inadequate to capture discretion-as-used in the frontline encounter. The paper proposes a Weberian ethics of office approach to frontline discretion that contributes to current more appreciative perspectives on street-level discretion. Through a comparative ethnography of first encounters in three Danish public service bureaucracies, we develop a typology of office-based discretionary responses to standardization. We label the three types as adaptive handling, attentive compensation, and affective encouragement. Our study of doctors, midwives and citizen-service bureaucrats suggests that discretionary possibilities differ in relation to organizational context and level of professional training. However, across cases the discretionary responses are indicative of the frontline practitioners’ casuistic practices of balancing professional virtues, client-orientation, and managerial demands in the quest to deliver fair and responsive services. Accordingly, securing the conditions for the exercise of discretion in frontline encounters are essential to the responsible provision of public services.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Public Administration Research and Theory
ISSN1053-1858
DOIs
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 25 Mar 2022

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