Trimming the Fat: Indonesia's Bloated Bureaucracy

ASEAN turns 50 this year, and in a recent summit hosted by President Duterte, civil servants and the capacity they have to ensure effective governments were brought into concern. Although at first glance this would be seen as mere fodder to show that the summit has concluded with standard sentiments that all nations can agree upon, this is not the first time for ASEAN when it comes to advocating reform in government bureaucracy. Indeed, Secretary-Generals of ASEAN have always advocated for good governance. The problem that arises is the extent to which Indonesia can realize their own vision of clean and a productive bureaucracy.

The root of the problem in Indonesia’s organizational structure stemmed from Soeharto’s New Order, despite a period of economic growth and prosperity. Indeed, behind the development laid a complicated central government.  The position of "civil servant" was seen as a method to instill the creation of jobs, therefore over the decades of Soeharto’s administration and beyond, the government has bloated in the wrong places. This was not only seen in the executive branch but also in the legislative, which—as many scholars analyze—was seen as an automatic rubber stamp for Soeharto who had allegedly handpicked its members.

This means that despite a juggernaut of people in the government, how many of them can actually be utilized in representing Indonesia's interests? For example, after a brief stint as Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dino Patti Djalal wrote a memo writing that there is still a lack of diplomats who can fill key positions in Indonesia’s many embassies, even though it is clear that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains one of the most competitive as well as populous government departments to apply to. That being said, Indonesia’s main problem when it comes to its bureaucracy has been cutting through between the quantity and sustaining the quality of civil servants.

However, this does not necessarily mean there has been no breakthroughs for Indonesia at all when it comes to bureaucracy reform. In fact, it is in these precedents that Indonesia can create a model government for itself. Former Minister Erna Witoelar has stated that she upheld certain rules for herself during her time as Minister, such as not bringing along anyone she was related to in any form. She instead created a close line of communication between the ministry’s director-generals. The government has also taken more strict measures in the appointment of expert staffs (staf ahli) and other first echelon positions by establishing parameters and requirements such as education and the amount of experience.

Perhaps the most obvious platform to point to when it comes to reforming Indonesia’s civil servants is the Ministry of Bureaucracy Reform, an adamant institution that is plastered with President Widodo’s campaign slogan “Revolusi Mental” (Mental Revolution). Unfortunately, over the years the ministry has seemed to be utilized as a pit stop for political patronage rather than as a stage to push policies that keep government ministries in line. Professor Eko Prasojo, who I interviewed when he was the Ministry’s Vice Minister, has even stated that at times the Ministry has a difficult time passing through its concerns within individual ministries because the fact of the matter is they each have their own vision of bureaucracy reform that can otherwise bring the Ministry of Bureaucracy Reform into question.

The fact above is layered more strongly in the Widodo administration because we have a variety of institutions whose purpose either directly or indirectly has a say in bureaucracy reform. These institutions include the Cabinet Secretary, the State Secretary, the President’s Chief of Staff, and the National Planning Agency who has all in one way or another stated that they intend to make their respective institution a think-tank for reforming the government’s bureaucracy. This notion does not help the Ministry of Bureaucracy Reform, especially since its credibility was hit by former minister Yuddy Chrisnandi, whose staff was allegedly involved in granting government-funded trips for families of parliament members with questionable relevance to policy. Of course there was also the list of Ministries evaluated by the Ministry of Bureaucracy Reform at the time, which placed the Ministry itself at an unusually high distinction without clear data.

Indonesia has to clean up its own bureaucratic mishaps before it can communicate its commitment to the coordination of civil servants in ASEAN. First, the government needs to firmly establish (or rather, re-establish) the role of the Ministry of Bureaucracy Reform. The first step that can be taken is to treat the Ministry as a serious foundation for change rather than as an extension of political feudalism. The President then should bring in credible experts who have a real track record in administrative reform. Second of all, coordination between other relevant government institutions should be key in order to resolve conflicting administrative acts.

Indonesia has without a doubt been vulnerable to a history of corruption, nepotism and collusion within its bureaucracy. These components are not necessarily distinctive to one President because they're always present (for proof, the author suggests you to wait around the KPK for inspiration). However, with time, the right people, and discipline, it can perhaps be ended by a President. The question lies in whether or not this achievement will be bestowed to that of the current incumbent.