PhD Thesis

PhD Thesis - Anette Petersen

Discretion and Public Digitalisation: A Happy Marriage or Ugly Divorce?

IT University of Copenhagen, 2021

Based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in two Danish municipalities, my dissertation empirically demonstrates the collaborative, situated, and negotiated character of discretion in social work practice, and its role in how cases are approached and information is gathered, used, shared, presented and recorded.

By considering the multiplicity of discretion, and the practice in which discretion is embedded, I wish to enhance the concept of discretion. This entails a shift in conceptual, empirical, analytical and practical focus, from merely seeing discretion as an individual act, impacted by technological implementation – to considering its collaborative practice (and value) as part of a design process.

Research papers

“We Would Never Write That Down”: Classifications of Unemployed and Data Challenges for AI

Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 2021 | Award: Honourable mention at CSCW ’21

AI is increasingly used in public administration with the promise of improving decision-making through predictive modelling. To accurately predict, it needs all the agreed criteria used as part of decisions, formal and informal.

This paper empirically explores the informal classifications used by caseworkers to make unemployed welfare seekers ‘fit’ into the formal categories applied in a Danish job centre. Our findings show that these classifications are documentable, and hence traceable to AI. However, to the caseworkers, they are at odds with the stable explanations assumed by any bureaucratic recording system as they involve negotiated and situated judgments of people’s character.

Thus, for moral reasons, caseworkers find them ill-suited for formal representation and predictive purposes and choose not to write them down. As a result, although classification work is crucial to the job centre’s activities, AI is denuded of the real-world (and real work) character of decision-making in this context.