Discretion and Public Digitalisation: A Happy Marriage or Ugly Divorce?

Anette Petersen

Publikation: Bog / Antologi / Rapport / Ph.D.-afhandlingPh.d.-afhandling


‘The problem of discretion’. ‘The need for discretion’ ‘The fear of discretion’. ‘The benefits of discretion’. ‘The control of discretion’. ‘The growth of discretion’. ‘The death of discretion’.

Recently, ‘discretion’ has been rediscovered as a central concept in public digitalisation, where it is primarily seen in terms of the impact of technologies on frontline workers' ability to act flexibly and responsively in practice. In both academic and public debates, discretion and public digitalisation are often viewed as opposing concerns and competing interests. There are those who believe that discretion is subjective and random, whereas data-driven technologies, on the other hand, are objective and evidence-based. In a related move, the Danish government is progressively working towards ‘objective criteria over discretion'. This is coupled with an aspiration to use data to drive growth and the belief that emerging technologies, such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI), can make ‘better decisions’ than humans and enable ‘faster and more efficient case processing’. In contrast, critics oppose the possibility of replacing human decision-making with algorithms because of the contingencies that arise in practice, which often require tailored approaches and discretionary decisions. The result is that we are often left with two opposing claims: that public digitalisation solves problems, or that it causes them. There is less clarity as to what might be the 'best' way to move forward.
Every time public services are digitalised and tasks are augmented or automated, decisions are also made about discretion, how it is used, and how it should be used. The decisions made here can have a profound impact on how public services are viewed, approached and delivered. In this dissertation, I demonstrate the need to develop a more nuanced understanding of discretion, to enable ways to involve the perspective of those whose work has been and increasingly will be affected by these decisions. I focus on how an extended view on discretion can be achieved by adopting an ethnographic approach to Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) and an interdisciplinary engagement with related fields such as sociology, science and technology studies (STS) and computer science (CS). Based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in two Danish municipalities, my dissertation empirically demonstrates the collaborative, situated, and negotiated character of discretion in social work practice, and its role in how cases are approached and information is gathered, used, shared, presented and recorded. By considering the multiplicity of discretion, and the practice in which discretion is embedded, I wish to enhance the concept of discretion from one that mainly sees the relationship between discretion and public digitalisation as singular to one that considers its multiple engagements. This entails a shift in conceptual, empirical, analytical and practical focus, from merely seeing discretion as an individual act, impacted by technological implementation - to considering its collaborative practice (and value) as part of a design process.
ForlagIT-Universitetet i København
Antal sider165
ISBN (Trykt)978-87-7949-055-0
StatusUdgivet - 2021


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