The University of Southampton
University of Southampton Institutional Repository

Street-Level bureaucracy, social work and the (exaggerated) death of discretion

Street-Level bureaucracy, social work and the (exaggerated) death of discretion
Street-Level bureaucracy, social work and the (exaggerated) death of discretion
Lipsky’s classic study of ‘street-level bureaucracy’ (1980) provided a perceptive analysis of front line practice in public organizations that has continuing relevance to recent literature, which has debated whether discretion continues to operate in social work or whether it has been curtailed. Having considered contributions to the debate on the continuation and curtailment of professional discretion in social work, it becomes clear that there are significant differences between these two positions, differences which focus on beliefs about manager’ desire for, and ability to secure, control and workers’ ability to resist control and seek discretion. However, after examining these issues further, through an examination of key aspects of Lipsky’s work and Howe’s (1991) critique of that work, a unifying strand is identified in the curtailment and continuation perspectives. Both perspectives have a tendency to treat professional discretion as a phenomenon that is either present or absent and rest on a background assumption, particularly in the curtailment literature, that professional discretion is self-evidently a ‘good thing’. An alternative argument is advanced, based on two propositions: first, that the proliferation of rules and regulations should not automatically be equated with greater control over professional discretion; paradoxically, more rules may create more discretion. Second, discretion in itself is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. In some circumstances it may be an important professional attribute, in others it may be a cloak for political decision-makers to hide behind or it may be an opportunity for professional abuse of power. If this alternative argument is soundly based, future analysis of and research into professional discretion rooted in ‘all-or-nothing’ formulations are unlikely to advance understanding much beyond the impasse in the existing literature. Rather, the alternative argument suggests that discretion should be regarded as a series of gradations of freedom to make decisions and, therefore, the degree of freedom professionals have at specific conjunctures should be evaluated on a situation-by-situation basis.
street-level bureaucracy, social work discretion, managerialism
0045-3102
871-895
Evans, Tony
2dc99480-b1d1-4a24-b9c8-8521299b4f16
Harris, John
e59b2557-eac7-42c0-b511-0e3e0e02e556
Evans, Tony
2dc99480-b1d1-4a24-b9c8-8521299b4f16
Harris, John
e59b2557-eac7-42c0-b511-0e3e0e02e556

Evans, Tony and Harris, John (2004) Street-Level bureaucracy, social work and the (exaggerated) death of discretion. British Journal of Social Work, 34 (6), 871-895. (doi:10.1093/bjsw/bch106).

Record type: Article

Abstract

Lipsky’s classic study of ‘street-level bureaucracy’ (1980) provided a perceptive analysis of front line practice in public organizations that has continuing relevance to recent literature, which has debated whether discretion continues to operate in social work or whether it has been curtailed. Having considered contributions to the debate on the continuation and curtailment of professional discretion in social work, it becomes clear that there are significant differences between these two positions, differences which focus on beliefs about manager’ desire for, and ability to secure, control and workers’ ability to resist control and seek discretion. However, after examining these issues further, through an examination of key aspects of Lipsky’s work and Howe’s (1991) critique of that work, a unifying strand is identified in the curtailment and continuation perspectives. Both perspectives have a tendency to treat professional discretion as a phenomenon that is either present or absent and rest on a background assumption, particularly in the curtailment literature, that professional discretion is self-evidently a ‘good thing’. An alternative argument is advanced, based on two propositions: first, that the proliferation of rules and regulations should not automatically be equated with greater control over professional discretion; paradoxically, more rules may create more discretion. Second, discretion in itself is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. In some circumstances it may be an important professional attribute, in others it may be a cloak for political decision-makers to hide behind or it may be an opportunity for professional abuse of power. If this alternative argument is soundly based, future analysis of and research into professional discretion rooted in ‘all-or-nothing’ formulations are unlikely to advance understanding much beyond the impasse in the existing literature. Rather, the alternative argument suggests that discretion should be regarded as a series of gradations of freedom to make decisions and, therefore, the degree of freedom professionals have at specific conjunctures should be evaluated on a situation-by-situation basis.

This record has no associated files available for download.

More information

Published date: September 2004
Keywords: street-level bureaucracy, social work discretion, managerialism

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 48086
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/48086
ISSN: 0045-3102
PURE UUID: d732c663-c90b-436e-b8bd-a8437e10e378

Catalogue record

Date deposited: 28 Aug 2007
Last modified: 27 Apr 2022 09:56

Export record

Altmetrics

Contributors

Author: Tony Evans
Author: John Harris

Download statistics

Downloads from ePrints over the past year. Other digital versions may also be available to download e.g. from the publisher's website.

View more statistics

Atom RSS 1.0 RSS 2.0

Contact ePrints Soton: eprints@soton.ac.uk

ePrints Soton supports OAI 2.0 with a base URL of http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/cgi/oai2

This repository has been built using EPrints software, developed at the University of Southampton, but available to everyone to use.

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we will assume that you are happy to receive cookies on the University of Southampton website.

×