Report: International Conference ‘The Quest for Controlled Freedom’

When the pursuit of public goals is concerned, full freedom as well as total control seem illusory. The continuous quest for a dynamic equilibrium in the tension between total control and full freedom, forms the essence of discretion. What are the meta-conditions in the public sphere for appropriate action, in terms of accountable ways of dealing with freedom when acting towards public goals? Exploring these conditions was the aim of this conference, which was organized by Peter Hupe (ESSB till retirement and now KU Leuven and University of Birmingham), Peter Mascini (ESL and ESSB) and Marianne Breijer (ESL) in the Dutch Senate in The Hague, hosted by Senator Ferd Crone (PvdA). The topic was inspired by the launch of a new book, titled Discretion and the Quest for Controlled Freedom, edited by Tony Evans and Peter Hupe (Palgrave Macmillan).

The conference consisted of three keynote lectures, each followed by a panel discussion on the theme that was addressed in the keynote lecture. After an introductory talk by conference chair Mirko Noordegraaf (Professor of Public Management, Utrecht University), Tony Evans (Professor of Social Work, University of London) gave a presentation on the theme Discretion and the Ethics of Obedience and Resistance. In his presentation, Evans addressed the question of how obedience to organizational standards, professional codes of conduct and personal ethics of care for constituents compare and what is the room and responsibility for resistance to compliance with formal rules? This theme was also discussed in a panel consisting of Tony Evans (keynote speaker), Mark Hardy (University of York), Peter Hupe and Suzanne Rutz (ESHPM) and moderated by Antoinette de Bont (ESHPM). This panel discussed the following two statements: “Against what standards should the use or non-use of discretion be assessed?” and “Should discretion be presumed and any limitation justified or should there be a presumption against discretion with any exercise of it requiring justification?”

Keith Hawkins (Professor Emeritus of Law and Society, Oxford University) gave a keynote on the theme Discretion and Accountability. His presentation dealt with the multifaceted character of discretion as well as its collective dimension. This theme was further discussed in a panel with Keith Hawkins (keynote speaker), Victor Bekkers (Dean ESSB), Tony Evans and Peter Hupe and moderated by Peter Mascini. This panelists discussed the question “What do discretion and accountability mean for the legal process when we regard legal decision-making as collective behaviour?”

Herman van Gunsteren (Professor Emeritus of Political Theories and Philosophy of Law, Leiden University) gave a presentation on the theme Control through Hierarchy and Beyond. He commented on the book that was launched by comparing it with his own book titled The Quest for Control: A Critique of the Rational-Central-Rule Approach in Public Affairs. This theme was discussed by a panel consisting of Herman van Gunsteren (keynote speaker), Greg Marston (University of Queensland), Kirstine Zinck Pedersen (Copenhagen Business School) and Dirk Wolfson (ESSB) and moderated by Arthur Ringeling (ESSB). This panel first discussed the statement: “Abandoning the legal rules-discretion scheme is not a wise move after all. Not every freedom to decide involves discretionary authority. Discretion attaches to offices, to official positions in a hierarchy in which in the end the law trumps other considerations”. The panel continued by discussing the second statement: “What can be abandoned is the view of discretion as a necessary evil. The positive aspects of discretion - creativity, professional expertise, personal contact and ethical awareness - can be appreciated if control is used to organize and facilitate freedom, including the freedom of officeholders we call discretion.”

Wrapping up the day, conference chair Mirko Noordegraaf addressed the many different perspectives the phenomenon of discretion was discussed from and against the backdrop of a rapidly changing social context.