Nytt forskningssenter ved UiB: Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism

Hvilken rolle spiller velferdspolitikken for å forstå legitimitetsproblemene vi møter i moderne stater? Dommere, leger, lærere, sosialarbeidere, barnevernspersonale, politiet, for å nevne noen få, har fått delegert makt til å fatte beslutninger som ofte er både kontroversielle og har store konsekvenser for enkeltindivider. Muligheten disse tjenestemennene har til å påvirke våre liv, er enorme, men vi vet altfor lite om hvordan denne skjønnsmakten utøves og rettferdiggjøres. Ved institutt for administrasjon og organisasjonsvitenskap, UiB, har professor Marit Skivenes etablert Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism, for å søke svar på disse kjernespørsmålene i statsvitenskapen.

Av Marit Skivenes*

Societies and states are at a crossroads in how citizens and individuals are treated, and how their rights are respected and protected. Why is this happening? One interesting hypothesis launched by political scientist Bo Rothstein and others, is that the reason for the decline in trust and political turmoil is that governments have failed in securing welfare for their citizens and residents. Too many people lack sufficient quality of life and cannot see a prosperous future for their children. They experience the state is failing them. At the newly established Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism, we examine the role of welfare policies and practices to understand the legitimacy problems we face in modern states. Specifically, we will try to unlock the black box of discretionary decision-making in courts and welfare state services, and explore the role paternalism has in justifying restrictions on individuals’ and citizens’ freedom. There are huge research gaps in this important area of the welfare state, with a great deal of uncertainty concerning how, when and why discretionary decisions are different between decision-makers, within and between welfare states.

A main objective for the research at the Centre is to reveal the mechanisms for exercising discretion, and improve the understanding of the principles underpinning welfare states. At the core of this lies the power delegated to public employees by the government. In accordance with legislation and authorization, officials may sentence people to prison; expel migrant families and children from the country; grant unemployment benefits; provide aid for re-training; remove children at risk from their parents; decide whether to investigate a case or dismiss it, and the list goes on. For individuals and citizens, state agents can facilitate an expansion of freedom and ability to act. However, they can also be restrictive and intrusive for those in contact with the welfare state and public authorities. The power public officials have to influence our lives is enormous, yet we lack knowledge on how discretionary power is exercised and justified. What authority is granted to public officials, and how well do they exercise their power? How can we explain differences in discretionary decisions, and do variations always constitute a problem? How are restrictions on citizens and individuals’ freedom justified? What do people think of ongoing polices and the values underpinning our welfare state?

How are we planning to move forward in addressing these questions? To understand what is going on will require a systematic examination of the role of institutional, organizational and individual factors. This will include analysis of the formal regulations of prevailing legal principles; professions involved; types of court and decision-making bodies in place; demographic factors and individual values; as well as examining the populations’ view on professional practice and legal regulations. We will employ several innovative methodological approaches, multi- level and cross-country examinations, and use multiple data collection methods; combining survey vignettes, interviews, survey experiments, and textual analysis. We have an empirical and critical ambition to explain the decisive factors and mechanisms that promote or hinder high-quality discretionary decision-making on the welfare of individuals.

The outcomes of the research at the Centre are important because societies are at crossroads regarding how individuals are treated and their rights are respected; creating tensions in the traditional relationship between the family and the state. We aim to move beyond the various fields and sectors involved (law, social services, health, poverty, migration, child protection, etc.), and provide important insight into the exercise of discretion in all areas where the public interest as well as national interest must be interpreted.

Director of the Centre is professor Marit Skivenes, who was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant in 2016. The ERC Consolidator Grant is designed to support excellent researcher in consolidating their independent research team and program, providing the opportunity to bring together several research projects into the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism. The Centre is solidly placed within political science, but aims to cross boundaries between different fields of research. The Centre cooperates closely with the Centre for Law and Social Transformation as well as international universities, colleges and institutes. To read more about the Centre, click here.

*Marit Skivenes er Professor ved institutt for administrasjon og organisasjonsvitenskap ved universitetet i Bergen og direktør for Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism

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