Artificial intelligence, bureaucratic form, and discretion in public service

Justin Bullock, Matthew M. Young, Yi Fan Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


This article examines the relationship between Artificial Intelligence (AI), discretion, and bureaucratic form in public organizations. We ask: How is the use of AI both changing and changed by the bureaucratic form of public organizations, and what effect does this have on the use of discretion? The diffusion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has changed administrative behavior in public organizations. Recent advances in AI have led to its increasing use, but too little is known about the relationship between this distinct form of ICT and to both the exercise of discretion and bureaucratic form along the continuum from street- to system-levels. We articulate a theoretical framework that integrates work on the unique effects of AI on discretion and its relationship to task and organizational context with the theory of system-level bureaucracy. We use this framework to examine two strongly differing cases of public sector AI use: health insurance auditing, and policing. We find AI's effect on discretion is nonlinear and nonmonotonic as a function of bureaucratic form. At the same time, the use of AI may act as an accelerant in transitioning organizations from street- and screen-level to system-level bureaucracies, even if these organizations previously resisted such changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)491-506
Number of pages16
JournalInformation Polity
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2020


  • Discretion
  • artificial intelligence
  • bureaucracy
  • improper payments
  • policing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration


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