Discretionary Responses in Frontline Encounters: Balancing Standardization with the Ethics of Office

Kirstine Zinck Pedersen*, Anja Svejgaard Pors

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Policy reforms of public service encounters often seek to control, delegate, or eliminate discretion at the frontline. In this article, 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 article 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 is essential to the responsible provision of public services.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Public Administration Research and Theory
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)80-93
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

Published online: 05 March 2022.

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