In The News

Indonesia Makes Strides in Budget Transparency Despite Political Patronage

January 30, 2013

Two new publications showing very different profiles of the quality of governance in Indonesia landed on my desk this week, prompting debate and consternation. The just-launched International Budget Partnership’s “2012 Open Budget Survey” painted an encouraging picture, placing Indonesia in the top 25 percent of a global pack ranked on issues of state budget transparency. At the very same time, a newly published journal article persuasively argued that patronage remains the defining feature of Indonesia’s democracy. The dramatically disparate pictures presented of Indonesia simultaneously were enough to make me ask: what is going on here?

Our office had eagerly awaited the results of the 2012 Open Budget Survey, which measures budget transparency, participation, and oversight in more than 100 countries around the world. Budget transparency is at the core of good governance: in order for state budgets to be managed efficiently – and used to improve service delivery (such as education, healthcare, clean water, etc.) and reduce poverty – budget information needs to be widely available to a civil society that is active in both decision-making and budget oversight. The Asia Foundation’s long-time partner, Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency (FITRA), represented Indonesia in the International Budget Partnership, and compiled a massive number of budget documents, laws, and interviews to answer the 125 questions used by the survey.

Indonesian women at a school

In order for state budgets to be managed efficiently – and used to improve service delivery and reduce poverty – budget information needs to be widely available to the public. Photo/Ted Alcorn

The survey findings certainly present good news for Indonesia, which is one of only 17 countries – with peers that include Germany, South Korea, and the United States – categorized as providing “significant information” about the government budget to citizens.

Indonesia also earned the honor of being one of 14 nations that made the greatest improvements in budget transparency over the past two years. The country’s overall index score increased more than 15 points since 2010, which was particularly encouraging given that Indonesia had seen a minor setback in its survey score from 2008 to 2010. Indonesia was also cited as one of only seven countries that managed to break into the elite group of countries scoring 61 or higher on the survey scale.

Indonesia’s scores are impressive, and to those of us who have supported the country’s budget transparency movement over the past decade, the recent progress comes as no great surprise. Dozens of civil society organizations – at the local and national level – have been seeking out budget documents from every level of government, and producing analysis that has been the driving force behind budget reallocations and reform. On the government side, the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 2008, coupled with the hefty political will of a Presidential Task Force to Accelerate Development (UKP4), resulted in Indonesia’s commitment to an Open Government Partnership action plan in 2011. Reformers across civil society and government have been working for years to get Indonesia to improve the transparency of its budget, and it was gratifying to see this measured and reported on internationally.

Just as we were to let out a collective cheer, however, a copy of the article by World Bank’s Peter Blunt, “Patronage’s Progress in Post-Soeharto Indonesia,” reminded us of the many battles to come. Blunt’s paper credibly argues that patronage remains a defining feature of governance in Indonesia. Sadly, it presents evidence that decentralization has exacerbated patronage problems. It also argues that development assistance contributes to the maintenance of Indonesia’s patronage systems by either turning a blind eye to corruption, investing in technocratic solutions that ignore political realities, or being co-opted by management mechanisms that enable predatory behavior. Among the constraints that make the authors pessimistic that Indonesia’s patronage will be addressed in the medium-term future include: “the pervasiveness, inventiveness, and tenacity of patronage networks,” as well as “the politically constrained reach of central anti-corruption institutions.”

Many of us working for reform in Indonesia frequently feel these mixed emotions: euphoria at what has been achieved, shadowed by concern over how much remains to be done. In December, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) reported to Parliament that it had prosecuted 332 corruption cases since the commission was established in 2004, and research by Indonesia Corruption Watch confirms that its conviction rates are high and improving. Do we celebrate that the KPK has the gumption to investigate another 170 district heads on suspicions of corruption, or mourn the fact that vote-buying, bid-rigging, job-purchasing, and nepotism are seemingly the norm for the hundreds of thousands of officials in Indonesia’s civil service?

And transparency itself is presenting a mixed blessing. While the massive amount of information available to civil society presents a tremendous opportunity, the comparatively small number of civil society organizations and researchers are becoming quickly overwhelmed with practical matters of data management and analysis. Too often we find that government data is at the ready, but not being effectively utilized by either civil society watchdogs or government agencies responsible for internal control – for both reasons of limited capacity and just sheer information overload.

Some would argue that Indonesia’s collusive elements are always going to be adept at “isomorphic mimicry,” and will quickly reconstruct patronage systems to fit within any new “good governance” façade. Yet I often see cause for hope in the countervailing coalitions of reformers that every once in a while outmuscle entrenched interests. There are many victories, evidenced in corruption convictions and budget reallocations. While Indonesia’s patronage systems have proved remarkably resilient in the reform era, I remain optimistic that the country’s achievements in budget transparency are a step closer toward greater accountability to the people.

Laurel MacLaren is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at lmaclaren@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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