Digital Discretion: Unpacking Human and Technological Agency in Automated Decision Making in Sweden’s Social Services

Agneta Ranerup*, Helle Zinner Henriksen

*Corresponding author for this work

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The introduction of robotic process automation (RPA) into the public sector has changed civil servants’ daily life and practices. One of these central practices in the public sector is discretion. The shift to a digital mode of discretion calls for an understanding of the new situation. This article presents an empirical case where automated decision making driven by RPA has been implemented in social services in Sweden. It focuses on the aspirational values and effects of the RPA in social services. Context, task, and activities are captured by a detailed analysis of humans and technology. This research finds that digitalization in social services has a positive effect on civil servants’ discretionary practices mainly in terms of their ethical, democratic, and professional values. The long-term effects and the influence on fair and uniform decision making also merit future research. In addition, the article finds that a human–technology hybrid actor redefines social assistance practices. Simplifications are needed to unpack the automated decision-making process because of the technological and theoretical complexities.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial Science Computer Review
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)445-461
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2022


  • Discretion
  • Automated decision making
  • Robotic process automation
  • Social work
  • Actor-network theory

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