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Iron cage or tissue paper? Differential responses to standardized decision-making in two public agencies

Public Accountability and Public Administration Seminar
30 May 2018, h. 17.00

Speaker: Emily Bosk (Rutgers University of New Jersey)

Chair: Paola Mattei (University of Milan)

SPS Seminar Room (Room 215, II Floor,  Passione side)
Dipartimento di Scienze sociali e politiche
Via Conservatorio 7, Milano


Standardized procedures for decision-making are understood to solve two related organizational problems in public agencies: First, they are designed to limit worker discretion and its attendant negative consequences. Second, they attempt to constrain the potential for workers’ implicit biases to generate disparate outcomes for clients. Yet instead of equalizing decision-making processes, standardized procedures in specific organizational contexts may in fact reflect inequality in how frontline workers experience control over their decisions. Analyzing case accounts from Child Protective Service (CPS) workers, I find that workers’ status characteristics, such as race and sex intersected with organizational policy – in this case, two states’ approaches to implementing an actuarialbased decision-making tool – to structure how workers with the same job title responded to decision-making constraints. In a state with a highly controlled decision-making environment, frontline workers whose ascriptive characteristics afforded them more privilege reported flouting organizational rules, framing their decision-making as autonomous. Conversely, CPS workers whose ascriptive characteristics were associated with lower social status disproportionately reported following the rules and experienced their decision-making as restricted. In contrast, in a state where standardized procedures were ceremonially adopted, all workers reported their decision-making to be unconstrained. This research reveals how a standardized tool intended to make decisionmaking fairer is another llocus for the expression of workplace inequality.

This seminar is part of the Cycle of seminars "Public Accountability and Public Administration"

18 maggio 2018
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