Margot Kersing

The use of (Big) data in the local social domain: developing street-level responsibility practices

ESSB: Department of Public Administration and Sociology (DPAS) and ESHPM: Health Care Governance (HCG), Erasmus University,

Supervisors: Prof. Liesbeth van Zoonen and prof. Kim Putters


I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Public Administration (Track: Politics and Bureaucracy) (Leiden University) and a master’s degree in Political Philosophy (Leiden University). During and after my studies I was interested in the work of street-level bureaucrats and the ethical dilemmas and conflicting public values related to their work.

After graduating, I worked as a teacher at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, at the PPLE college at the University of Amsterdam, and at the school of Public Administration at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

Summary PhD project

In recent years there has been a shift towards a digital welfare state in which goverments experiment with new data technologies to assess eligibility of support, detect fraud and predict risks in certain populations (Pederson, 2019, Eurofound, 2020, Coene et al., 2020, Blauw, 2020). In the Netherlands this shift is primarily happening on the local level as a result of the decentralization of social policy in 2015 Dutch municipalities. Increasingly, local municipalities are experimenting with the use of (Big) data in the local social domain to deal with their new responsibilities and increasing costs (Government of the Netherlands, n.d.). Examples are municipal data warehouses, dashboards, and predictive analytics (Van Zoonen, 2019).

This transition to data-driven work happened almost entirely outside the public and political eye. Data determine the direction through facts and patterns that can be recognized in these data but administrative insights and wishes of citizens are often not taken into account. Frontline bureaucrats and clients are also often excluded from developing or designing (Big) data instruments (van Zoonen, 2019, 2020). Hence, these experiments with (Big) data take place in an ‘institutional void’ in which there are no generally accepted rules and norms according to which policy making and politics is to be conducted. This is also the case in the Dutch local social domain. In the absence of clear guidelines, a variety of actors negotiate new institutional rules and develop new norms of appropriate behavior around the use of (Big) data (Hajer, 2003, p.175-176).

This situation, where new rules and norms are developed and that is strongly data-driven leads to problems with responsibility and accountability. This PhD thesis explores how frontline bureaucrats that provide services in the local social domain in the Netherlands deal with (Big) data in their work and what responsibility practices they develop.

I will conduct an exploratory ethnographic qualitative research consisting of a literature review and three case studies in the social care domain.