Empathy in the Digital Administrative State

47 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2021 Last revised: 20 May 2022

See all articles by Sofia Ranchordas

Sofia Ranchordas

Tilburg University; Libera Universita Internazionale degli Studi Sociali

Date Written: October 20, 2021


Humans make mistakes. Humans make mistakes especially while filling out tax returns, benefit applications, and other government forms, which are often tainted with complex language, requirements, and short deadlines. However, the unique human feature of forgiving these mistakes is disappearing with the digitalization of government services and the automation of government decision-making. While the role of empathy has long been controversial in law, empathic measures have helped public authorities balance administrative values with citizens’ needs and deliver fair and legitimate decisions. The empathy of public servants has been particularly important for vulnerable citizens (for example, disabled individuals, seniors, and underrepresented minorities). When empathy is threatened in the digital administrative state, vulnerable citizens are at risk of not being able to exercise their rights because they cannot engage with digital bureaucracy.

This Article argues that empathy, which in this context is the ability to relate to others and understand a situation from multiple perspectives, is a key value of administrative law deserving of legal protection in the digital administrative state. Empathy can contribute to the advancement of procedural due process, the promotion of equal treatment, and the legitimacy of automation. The concept of administrative empathy does not aim to create arrays of exceptions, nor imbue law with emotions and individualized justice. Instead, this concept suggests avenues for humanizing digital government and automated decision-making through a more complete understanding of citizens’ needs. This Article explores the role of empathy in the digital administrative state at two levels: First, it argues that empathy can be a partial response to some of the shortcomings of digital bureaucracy. At this level, administrative empathy acknowledges that citizens have different skills and needs, and this requires the redesign of pre-filled application forms, government platforms, algorithms, as well as assistance. Second, empathy should also operate ex post as a humanizing measure which can help ensure that administrative mistakes made in good faith can be forgiven under limited circumstances, and vulnerable individuals are given second chances to exercise their rights.

Drawing on comparative examples of empathic measures employed in the United States, the Netherlands, Estonia, and France, this Article’s contribution is twofold: first, it offers an interdisciplinary reflection on the role of empathy in administrative law and public administration for the digital age, and second, it operationalizes the concept of administrative empathy. These goals combine to advance the position of vulnerable citizens in the administrative state.

Keywords: digitization; automated decision-making; administrative law; public law; empathy; law and emotions; compassion; AI; administrative mistakes; digital exclusion; comparative law

JEL Classification: K23

Suggested Citation

Ranchordas, Sofia, Empathy in the Digital Administrative State (October 20, 2021). Duke Law Journal, Forthcoming , University of Groningen Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 13/2021, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3946487 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3946487

Sofia Ranchordas (Contact Author)

Tilburg University ( email )

P.O. Box 90153
Tilburg, DC Noord-Brabant 5000 LE

Libera Universita Internazionale degli Studi Sociali ( email )


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