Wayne Palmer. 2014. Thesis: “Discretion and the Building of Institutions: A Critical Examination of the Administration of Indonesia’s Overseas Labour Migration Programme”, PhD, Department of Indonesian and Malay Studies, The University of Sydney.


This thesis examines the role of discretion in determining the evolving structures of Indonesia’s overseas labour migration programme. Focusing on the turbulent period following the establishment of the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Overseas Indonesian Workers in 2007, the study examines the impact of intra-state conflict on the workings of the bureaucracy centrally, in five other locations in Indonesia and in three Asian host countries. Each of these case studies engages with the everyday strategies of bureaucrats as they seek to navigate the place-specific ways in which the legal framework of the programme collide with the objectives of the formal institutions competing for control over its implementation. In all of these cases, discretion emerges as a key resource for policymakers and administrators. At the highest level, it serves as a conduit for the ambitions of senior officials competing for influence in the brave new world of democratic Indonesia. For grassroots bureaucrats, it is a useful tool in the management of the complex – and sometimes conflicting – demands of managing the overseas labour migration programme during a period of prolonged inter-agency conflict. In effect, then, discretion serves as a kind of ‘institutional fix’ in situations where institutions begin to break down. In empirical terms, the thesis reveals the extent to which local context influences the level of discretion available to individual bureaucrats and the decisions they ultimately make. At a theoretical level, the study explains how that discretion draws on – and reinforces – misalignments between state institutions and the formal legal structures that govern them, while at the same time making it possible for those institutions to continue operating under difficult circumstances. In doing so, it confirms – in contradiction to the literature – that while discretion can indeed contribute to corruption and other forms of illegality, it can also play a positive role in the maintenance of state function.

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