Journal Article

Street-Level Bureaucracy, Social Work and the (Exaggerated) Death of Discretion

Tony Evans and John Harris

in The British Journal of Social Work

Published on behalf of British Association of Social Workers

Volume 34, issue 6, pages 871-895
Published in print September 2004 | ISSN: 0045-3102
Published online September 2004 | e-ISSN: 1468-263X | DOI:
Street-Level Bureaucracy, Social Work and the (Exaggerated) Death of Discretion

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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.

Keywords: street-level bureaucracy; social work discretion; managerialism

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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