Street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) in asylum seeker centres (azc’s) have a certain degree of autonomy – or discretionary power – in implementing public policies and assisting residents. This thesis investigates how SLBs operating under the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers in the Netherlands make sense of and utilise this discretionary power. In-depth interviews with 12 SLBs across five azc’s reveal the interplay of individual decision maker characteristics, organisational characteristics, client characteristics, and extra-organisational characteristics in shaping SLBs' understanding, reflection and application of discretionary power. Contrary to initial theoretical assumptions, SLBs do not primarily rely on rules when understanding their discretionary power. Instead, organisational characteristics, such as resource constraints and the lack of clear guidance from supervisors and colleagues, wield a more pronounced influence, leading to a diminished role of formal rules in shaping and guiding their discretion. In these situations SLBs often rely on their individual decision maker characteristics to navigate their discretion. Additionally, the research shows that client attributes impact SLBs' approach to discretion. SLBs allocate more time to residents who are vulnerable and friendly, while taking a more guarded approach towards safe country nationals and residents displaying aggression. This cautious approach leads to a stricter adherence to rules and regulations. Addressing the potential biases that might underlie these interactions with residents, this study emphasises the importance of reflective practices among SLBs. Reflective SLBs demonstrate a deeper level of engagement by critically evaluating their own discretionary power, leading to more responsible and effective decision-making in public services. Furthermore, extra-organisational factors, such as political decisions, indirectly influence SLBs' discretion by shaping the overall organisational context and imposing resource constraints. Overall, this research underscores the complexity of SLBs' discretionary power, acknowledging the nuanced interplay of factors that influence their discretion. The study highlights the significance of incorporating reflective practices into SLBs' roles, ultimately leading to better understanding and exercise of discretionary power

Dr. .M.A.C. Van Ostaijen, Prof. Dr. P.W.A. Scholten
Public Administration
Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Olga van den Berg. (2023, August 7). The Complexity of Discretion. Public Administration. Retrieved from