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Digital discretion: A systematic literature review of ICT and street-level discretion

Article in Information Polity 23(1):3-28. February 2018 


Peter Andrè Busch, Helle Aagard Zinner Henriksen


This study reviews 44 peer-reviewed articles on digital discretion published in the period from 1998 to January 2017. Street-level bureaucrats have traditionally had a wide ability to exercise discretion stirring debate since they can add their personal footprint on public policies. Digital discretion is suggested to reduce this footprint by influencing or replacing their discretionary practices using ICT. What is less researched is whether digital discretion can cause changes in public policy outcomes, and under what conditions such changes can occur. Using the concept of public service values, we suggest that digital discretion can strengthen ethical and democratic values but weaken professional and relational values. Furthermore, we conclude that contextual factors such as considerations made by policy makers on the macro-level and the degree of professionalization of street-level bureaucrats on the micro-level are important for understanding the diffusion and impact of digital discretion. In addition, inherent features of technology can be discussed at all levels in relation to their aims and tasks. We conclude that the scope of street-level bureaucracy is decreasing, and more and more street-level bureaucracies are turned into digital bureaucracies characterized by digital bureaucrats operating computers instead of interacting face-to-face with clients.