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Front-line Discretion: Good Cop or Bad Cop?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Eva Thomann 
August 26, 2016

Front-line workers are bureaucrats who implement public policy and interact on a direct and regular basis with clients – such as police officers, teachers and welfare workers. For many citizens, their encounters with front-line workers are their most immediate and personal experience with state representatives. It is key that front-line workers adhere to the values of fairness, equality and social equity when implementing rules that were decided upon through democratic procedures.

However, front-line workers are also human beings, and it is impossible for governments to regulate every aspect of their daily working experiences. It often makes sense to let front-line workers make their own judgments. For example, take the police officer who has to make tough, split-second decisions in often unforeseen and dangerous situations. His or her reaction will be a product of the training, experience and professional values of an individual whose expertise greatly exceeds that of any politician. Police practice relies and depends on these assets. However, the well-documented racial bias in police practices also shows how problematic this can be.

Should front-line workers have discretion or should they be subject to tight control? This controversy has long divided scholars and practitioners. In policy implementation research, top-down approaches tend toward the latter opinion. According to this view, police officers should ideally wear body cameras so as to minimize any opportunity to deviate from the rules and welfare workers should report on every client encounter. Conversely, bottom-up approaches point out that some degree of leeway is not only unavoidable, but also beneficial. The expertise, accountability and professional values of front-line workers make them the better problem-solvers who improve often imperfect rules when putting them into practice. The police officer and the welfare worker want to help you. If you tie their hands, they can no longer serve the community.

Obviously, reality is more complex. However, the basic question of discretion is more salient than ever and it is of more than merely scholarly interest. Finding the happy medium between discretion and control matters not only for those who make our laws, but also for the strategic and everyday decisions of managers and practitioners of public sector organizations – whether these are public organizations or private companies providing contracted services.

In my research with Lars Tummers and Nadine van Engen from Utrecht University and Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands, we have chosen to approach the question from a psychological perspective that puts the experiences and motivations of the front-line worker center stage. Our starting point is the famous “Thomas theorem”: If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Transferring this assumption to front-line discretion, we assume that for successful policy implementation, front-line workers must first be motivated to implement these policies. Hence, we ask: (how) does the experience of having discretion affect front-line workers’ willingness to implement a policy?

Discretion can be experienced at the strategic, tactical or operational level. Interestingly, although insights from psychology would expect us to find a strong motivational effect of powerfulness, the previous evidence on this link is highly ambiguous. This is why we choose a new, set-theoretic method that enables us to model so-called asymmetric explanatory patterns. This approach integrates a fundamental insight from motivation theory: the things that motivate people are often different from the things that demotivate them. For example, a low salary may make you dissatisfied. However, a high salary does not automatically make you satisfied.

We test such asymmetric patterns between powerfulness and implementation willingness on two large samples of 1,004 Dutch health care workers and 1,087 Dutch teachers. Nurses, doctors and police officers have in common that their discretion often has life and death implications. In such situations, front-line workers use coping strategies to reduce the often disquieting ambiguity that comes with discretion.

Our findings are striking in that they debunk the strict top-down view – at least at the motivational level. We find that experienced discretion is consistently a necessary condition for front-line workers’ implementation willingness. This means, for example, that in order to be motivated to adhere to the rules, our police officer needs to feel that he or she has some leeway.

Particularly important is powerfulness at the operational level of everyday decisions. However, we cannot simply conclude that the bottom-up view has been confirmed. In fact, powerfulness is necessary but not sufficient for motivating front-line workers. That is, discretion alone is not enough to motivate our police officer. It is a requirement, but it must combine with other conditions – workplace environment, available resources, evaluations of policy content, and so on – in order to actually result in high implementation willingness.

Where does that lead us? Scholars, managers and practitioners should stop asking whether front-line workers should be granted discretion as virtually all front-line workers with high implementation willingness experienced discretion. Our answer to this question is yes. The more important question seems to be how to best make use of front-line workers’ discretion in ways that encourage them to contribute to policy goals rather than their own biases and interests.


Author: Eva Thomann is a postdoctoral researcher specializing in policy implementation at the Institute of Political Science at Heidelberg University, Germany. Eva is a 2016 ASPA Founders’ Fellow. Email: [email protected].

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