Administrative Justice and Street-Level Emotions: Cultures of Denial in Entitlement Decision-Making

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The notion of administrative justice includes a focus on the nature and quality of decision-making within frontline governmental agencies that determine the legal entitlements of individuals, such as welfare claimants, homeless people, immigration applicants and asylum seekers. Increasingly, policy-makers and scholars are focusing on the challenges posed by poor primary decision-making and the question of how to get decisions ‘right first time’. Yet, the solutions proposed to meet these challenges are focused exclusively on the rational elements of the bureaucratic process, presuming that more knowledge and better cognitive skills are the appropriate solutions to poor decision-making. This article challenges this view, suggesting that we must focus on emotions as an additional driver of bureaucratic decision-making. Emotion is capable of shaping entitlements decisions in problematic ways; thus, until the emotions of bureaucratic practice are fully explored and understood, reform proposals that limit themselves to rationality solutions are likely to miss their mark to some extent. The empirical claim that emotions are part and parcel of street-level bureaucratic work is illustrated through the study of a fundamental aspect of entitlement decision-making: the judgements made about whether a claimant is telling the truth about their circumstances. The article argues that a fear of being duped shapes how bureaucracies resolve their uncertainty about claimants’ honesty, and orients bureaucracies towards not giving claimants the benefit of the doubt. Such ‘cultures of denial’ represent a banal emotional response to the conditions in which street-level bureaucracies frequently must operate – a response that is emotionally cathartic for bureaucracies but pathological for administrative justice. The research challenge, therefore, is to explore the capacity to create and sustain bureaucratic conditions that are emotionally healthier for administrative justice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)727-746
Number of pages20
JournalPublic Law
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2021

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