Transforming Professional Discretion: The Displacement of Case-based Rationality in Front-line Encounters

Kirstine Zinck Pedersen, Anja Svejgaard Pors

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In public sector research, studies of street level bureaucracy, and the sociology of professions, discretion is often studied as frontline workers’ individual-psychological coping strategies or as a defining trait of professionals’ fight for domination and autonomy. At the same time, the implementation of new standardizing policies in the public sector are directed at creating efficiency by transforming frontline practitioners’ possibilities for exercising discretion in order to increase control or responsiveness of welfare encounters. Drawing on ethnographic field studies of three different types of welfare encounters in a Danish public sector setting, we explore how discretionary practices of doctors, midwives and citizen service bureaucrats’ are affected by standardizing policies. We show how new policies introduced to delimit, pre-shape or delegate discretion at the frontline have diverse unintended effects that create new work tasks and discretionary dilemmas for the frontline professionals who are concurrently struggling to balance, for instance, client orientation, case-based but equal delivery of service, social-economical considerations and increasing managerial demands. We suggest that in these cases, neither dominant critique of professional discretion as coping or as professional autonomy adequately account for the discretionary practices of frontline practitioners in welfare encounters. Rather, our cases display how, on the one hand, frontline practitioners struggle to live up to their obligations and duties as office-holders – even when experiencing conflicting professional virtues and concerns. And on the other, how this endeavour is challenged by rough categorizations, new scripts for acting and decision-making, and new complex concerns – all caused by current policy attempts to regulate professional discretion in the welfare encounter.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2019
Number of pages31
Publication statusPublished - 2019
EventISA RC52 Interim Meeting 2019: Professions and Society: Facing the Challenges of Marketization, Globalization and Digitalization - Florence, Italy
Duration: 4 Jul 20196 Jul 2019


ConferenceISA RC52 Interim Meeting 2019
Internet address


  • Professional disrection
  • Standardization
  • Public sector
  • Policy
  • Frontline practitioners
  • Street-level bureaucracy

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