Research on How Software and Human Decision-Makers Interact Wins National Award

Work by expert in technology and administrative law is honoured

Denis Ram - 17 October 2018

A law professor's paper about how software regulates the front-line decision-makers who use it, and how these workers in-turn respond, has been named the best article published by the The Canadian Journal of Law & Society, last year.

The article is by Jennifer Raso, an expert in technology and administrative law, and a professor at the University of Alberta. It focuses on caseworker decision-making in the Ontario Works program (a provincial welfare program), and how these decisions are shaped by the everyday technologies that caseworkers use.

"I developed the idea to write this article from my qualitative research into how caseworkers use discretion in Ontario Works," said Raso.

"It quickly became clear that a newly adopted software system was making it very difficult for caseworkers to make discretionary decisions in favour of their clients."

The journal chose the article for its top recognition as part of its mandate to "encourage and develop the interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary study of the relations between law and society."

Raso's research explores discretion, data-driven technologies and administrative law, focusing on last-resort benefits programs.

Her research uncovered that "most disturbingly, SAMS (the new software system) seemed to transform caseworkers' roles from (that of) skilful interpreters who worked with laws to individuals who had to 'manipulate the system' to reach a desired result," said Raso.

This was so the caseworkers could produce decisions that "more closely match their interpretation of clients' needs and welfare laws," she said.

"With new technologies increasingly being designed to 'generate' legal decisions for administrators," said Raso, "it is more crucial than ever for legal scholars, lawyers and law students to interrogate the processes used to reach such decisions and the substantive 'just-ness' of their results."

Raso's groundbreaking work has also been recognized by the University of Cambridge Public Law Conference, where it was awarded the Richard Hart Prize for outstanding early career scholarship. Raso's work appears in the Canadian Journal of Law & Society, the Political and Legal Anthropology Review, the Journal of Law & Equality and the Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice.

"As a new faculty member, I look forward to exploring cutting-edge public law issues with students and contributing to the faculty's growing scholarly community," she said to the Faculty of Law, earlier this year.

The awarded article is titled Displacement as Regulation: New Regulatory Technologies and Front-Line Decision-Making in Ontario Works, and was published by Cambridge University Press in July 2017.

The Canadian Law and Society Association names a best article annually for English articles, and biennially for French articles.