The Role of Discretion in the Age of Automation

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Computer Supported Cooperative Work: CSCW: An International Journal, Volume 29, Number 3, p.303–333 (2020)


Administrative work, automation, Casework, Decision-Making, Digital-ready legislation, Digitisation, Discretion, Rules in action, Social work


This paper examines the nature of discretion in social work in order to debunk myths dominating prevalent debates on digitisation and automation in the public sector. Social workers have traditionally used their discretion widely and with great autonomy, but discretion has increasingly come under pressure for its apparent subjectivity and randomness. In Denmark, our case in point, the government recently planned to standardise laws to limit or remove discretion where possible in order for automation of case management to gain a foothold. Recent studies have focused on discretion in the public sector, but few have examined it explicitly and as part of real cases. As a consequence, they often leave the myths about discretion unchallenged. Inspired by the literature on discretion and CSCW research on rules in action, this study reports on an empirical investigation of discretion in child protection services in Denmark. The results of our analysis provide a new understanding of discretion as a cooperative endeavour, based on consultation and skill, rather than an arbitrary or idiosyncratic choice. In this manner, our study contradicts the myth of discretion inherent in the automation agenda. Correspondingly, we ask for attention to be given to systems that integrate discretion with technology rather than seek to undermine it directly or get around it surreptitiously. In this age of automation, this is not only an important but also an urgent task for CSCW researchers to fulfil.