What’s in a Word? Discretion



By Al Murdach, LCSW (retired)

This column explores some of the meanings behind words that today can have a significant impact upon the social work profession. Our word for today is: discretion.

Discretion is not a word social workers will immediately feel strongly about despite its importance for the profession. On first hearing it, the word suggests extreme politeness or verbal caution. In this column we will use an alternate meaning of the term to designate a type of professional decision making that possesses great flexibility and independence. Although it operates within certain ethical limits, it is ideally not bound by tradition, authority or official rules. In essence this quality of decision allows the professional to have free reign to use whatever course of action he or she feels is warranted to achieve the most positive outcome in any situation that requires professional intervention. This is the goal of “professional” discretion. Its underlying basis is of course professional training and expertise. However, such discretion, though much prized by professionals, may often conflict with bureaucratic requirements such as transparency, efficiency and accountability.

Several levels of social work practice have been identified that call for the frequent use of discretion by professionals: administrative, legal, supervisory and regulatory. The last two areas have been the most examined and can be described as follows:

 Supervisory Level. This level of practice involves assessing the supervisory staff’s efforts to properly administer the relevant rules and regulations developed by the agency as well as the ability of its line staff to comply with all necessary laws and regulations governing agency practice.

Regulatory Level. This level focuses on the use of discretion by line staff in applying agency rules and regulations and evaluating the compliance of clients and patients in response to such bureaucratic requirements. Also involved at this level are the necessary adjustments and compromises necessary to achieve needed benefits for the clients and patients involved.

Professional social work background and training brings an added dimension to any use of discretion at each of the four practice levels mentioned above. It is this extra dimension of practice that brings to bear social work values and ideals upon the determination of outcomes and results.

Since this discussion has been extremely abstract, it will be helpful here to briefly mention the growing interest in studying the actual use of discretion in a social agency in order to provide some idea of how discretion might actually work in practice as well as illustrate the ins and outs of such decision making by social work practitioners and how these modes of judgment shape practice for good or ill regarding bureaucratic requirements.

In the past few years there has been a growing movement in such social research to explore what has been called the “street level” experience of service workers in bureaucracies that provide direct services to clients on the margins of society: the police, medical staff, social workers, teachers, shelter workers, correctional staff, etc. Their daily job is trying to make inadequate help and resources accessible to people whose very existence depends on it. Consequently, these service workers daily have to make difficult choices requiring the constant use of discretion to balance the competing needs of clients, agency supervisors and scrutiny by the public.

In the late 1990s a now classic study by Evelyn Z. Brodkin examined these processes in a welfare-to-work social service program in Chicago. She found that, because of the demands of the job, wide ranging discretion, at all levels, and by both professionals and non-professionals, was inherent in all service delivery, even if attempts were made by administration to contain it to enforce official rules. This was the case, not only among the social work staff, but among all other service workers in the program as well. Her conclusions seem to indicate that, though discretion is an essential element of organizational practice, it must be shaped by professional values and goals to avoid becoming arbitrary, capricious and ineffective, three accusations often leveled against advocates for increased job discretion among social work providers.