Researching the practical ethics of discretion

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Professional discretion has been under threat over the last few decades. Politicians and policy makers have sought to manage and control front-line practice to make it better conform to policy blue prints. However, in the last few years, the language of central control and direction has moderated and managerial and policy rhetoric have shifted to reflect some desire to reduce the constraints of bureaucracy and make room for front-line discretion.

In this changing environment, while questions about the extent and limitations of discretion continue to be relevant, there is also a pressing need to consider the ethics of discretion. Discretion, in itself, is neither good nor bad. We have to consider and evaluate the approaches and uses of discretion in the context of service delivery: what is seen as the appropriate extent of discretion in a particular setting? What standards and principles should be used to guide the uses of discretion? What is the purpose of discretion in practice?

However, we have to be careful to avoid simply imposing external standards in assessing discretion. Seeking to understand front-line actors’ own commitments (and their relationship with external criteria in assessing their actions) suggests a practical and grounded route for research on discretion. The aim of this research agenda would be to understand the commitments cited by the actors involved as central to their judgments of the exercise of discretion; and to facilitate a critical dialogue between actors — practitioners, service-users and policy makers — in understanding and assessing discretion in practice.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2015 EGPA Annual Conference
Subtitle of host publicationPermanent Study Group XIII: Public Policy
Publication statusPublished - 27 Aug 2015

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