Discretion : an art of the possible : education committees in the Swedish system of government

Abstract: Discretion is commonly analyzed as the scope for choice set by formal superiors. This study aims at developing an alternative theory of discretion which also takes into account the assumptions of the actors in implementing positions. The theory is constructed with the purpose of being an empirical tool for analyzing discretion on a nation-wide basis and in a central-local government context. It concerns two main questions: to what extent does discretion vary and how can this variation be explained? The theory section concludes with a number of empirically testable hypotheses.The concept of discretion is defined as the scope for choice available to actors, in formally subordinate positions, vis-à-vis their superiors. It is seen as a special case of autonomy, as it is attributed to subordinates and primarily concerns one dimension of autonomy, namely freedom of action.In the second half of the study, the theory is applied empirically to the discretion available to Swedish local government Education Committees. A questionnaire study of all Education Committee Chairpersons and Chief Education Officers and in-depth interviews of a selected sample of these have been undertaken.The empirical study clearly indicates that there is variation in discretion. In spite of the uniformity of the system of governing local education, it is found that the limits for discretion are set differently by different Education Committee representatives.The variation follows a pattern which has been, at least partly, reconstructed. Variables which appear as important in explaining variation include: the extent to which the control system is regarded as efficient; the size and population density of the local authority; and individual traits such as length of experience and gender. However, our analysis also shows that these explanations are more valid in certain contexts than in others, which points the way for further research.