Understanding and improving discretionary judgment and decision-making in child protection practice: Towards a whole-of-system policy evaluation

David Hodgson, Lynelle Watts, Donna Chung


Discretionary judgment is a necessary and desirable attribute of child protection practice and decision-making. Increasingly, approaches towards accountability in child protection services act to constrain the use of practitioner discretionary judgement through ever increasing layers of standardisation and technical-rational approaches to practice. This situation is at odds with the need for professionals to adaptively respond to practice environments that are characterised by uncertainty and complexity. At the same time, there are known weakness and problems that are reported in the decision-making literature, begging questions about how to best support and evaluate for effective and accountable discretion and decision-making across a whole system. In this paper discretion is conceptualised as a structural and epistemic phenomena that is constrained and restricted under the weight of standardisation. A five-part conceptual framework for a systems approach to policy evaluation is presented, and it is argued that this framework would support the capacity for effective discretionary judgement and decision-making to emerge as a property of the system overall. This paper is a theoretical and conceptual argument for a systemic policy evaluation framework that is supportive of discretionary judgment and decision-making in child protection systems shifting the emphasis away from technical-rational compliance.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1921/swssr.v20i1.1136


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