Discretion and Street-Level Practice

Research output: A Conference proceeding or a Chapter in BookChapterpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Although most public administration scholars consider discretionary behaviour as necessary for effective administrative decision-making, it is also regarded as a risk. That risk concerns to cut the crucial relation between administrative behaviour and formal law that undergirds the legitimacy of the state. This received view has enormous intuitive and normative power. Disconnected from its legal and democratic mooring, administrative discretion raises the spectre of subjective and arbitrary behaviour by state officials. In contrast with this view, this chapter frames discretion as a practice. While open-ended and improvisational, a practice is neither arbitrary nor rule-less. Administrative practice is bound by tradition, experience, norms, peer pressure and background knowledge. I introduce the analysis of oral narrative as a method that reveals the micro-dynamics of discretionary behaviour. By applying this method to the case of a welfare officer I show how narrative analysis illuminates the craft of navigating the complexities of the welfare programme. In the conclusion, I argue that administrative practice, when properly organized, is the optimal way of safeguarding the integrity and legitimacy of public administration.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDiscretion and the Quest for Controlled Freedom
EditorsTony Evans, Peter Hupe
Place of PublicationNetherlands
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9783030195663
ISBN (Print)9783030195656
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019

Publication series

NameDiscretion and the Quest for Controlled Freedom
PublisherPalgrave Mcmillan


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