Tue, 04 Sep 2001

Govt reform: Chicken or egg?

By Meuthia Ganie-Rochman

JAKARTA (JP): The keyword under post-Soeharto Indonesia has been "good governance," charming words since they were expressed with great expectations. Anyone or any party -- NGO activists, foreign agencies, bureaucrats, legislators, and now the business community -- who wanted to be recognized as taking part in making the new Indonesia must not forget to mention it. The bandwagon of good governance is getting longer. But will the "train" go in the right direction?

The international community has put much effort into supporting the country in renewing many parts of its system. The World Bank and the United Nations Development Program has established a forum called Partnership for Governance Reform to coordinate and encourage initiatives in governance reform. The forum focuses on the justice sector, regional autonomy, legislative empowerment, electoral reform, civil service reform, corporate governance, and civil society. "Partnership" here refers to common initiatives between the government, foreign agencies and civil society organizations.

Foreign governments are also developing their own programs. The United States Agency for International Development, for example, is assisting the government and civil organizations in drafting some laws in the economics, environmental law, local resource management and anticorruption fields. The equivalent Australian body, AusAID, has just started its Legal Reform Program, which gives technical assistance and supports various public institutions and private groups focusing on improving the legal institutions.

The Asia Foundation, an international NGO, has secured huge funds to facilitate the institutional reform of the National Law Commission and National Ombudsman Commission. This is apart from its other programs supporting private groups in line with a more political-aware environment, such as its support for a survey on the public perception of court administration; for a drafting of an amendment to the law on the judiciary, aiming for its independence, and its support for a private group seeking corruption patterns in public services.

Foreign agencies have clearly helped many organizations and bodies in developing better governance. Many lack resources and technical capability. In the latter area, sharing experiences with other countries is particularly crucial, as technical assistance from donors are mostly relevant for orderly and fluent societies.

In spite of tremendous efforts by many foreign and local bodies in good governance, its impact for Indonesia remains to be seen. This country embodies most of the illnesses of bad governance. The fate of good governance depends much on the short-term efforts. That is why it is important to select the right strategies.

But what should be included in these strategies? In the past couple of years domestic and foreign bodies working in governance reform have been struggling to implement the "generic" content of good governance -- the principles of transparency and accountability in public sectors. These in turn can only be assured by democracy as well as the rule of law.

Related programs include strengthening private groups in their efforts to monitor and restructure judicial systems, drawing up drafts of laws, making regulations in the economy more consistent, and strengthening law enforcement bodies.

Cooperation between foreign agencies and civil organizations has been taking shape for quite a while. Growing participation from civil groups in monitoring public resources have encouraged foreign agencies to support their initiatives. Initially, the approach adopted in most programs treated these civil organizations as the opponents of the state. But recent developments show some initiatives that encourage partnership between elements of state institutions and civil organizations. There are pilot projects, for instance, where a local government develops a public service scheme together with a private group.

At the national level, foreign agencies and civil organizations have focused on some institutions, such as the Supreme Court, the police, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. But targeting "the right institutions" is considered insufficient. Both foreign agencies and civil organizations increasingly feel the need to involve the wider public in their efforts, particularly in combating corruption.

Given the degree of corruption here, the issue needs extensive effort involving many schemes. For the foreign agencies, more involvement of local elements will pose a lesser risk for them being accused of imposing their agenda.

There remains, however, potential problems that must be overcome to make such cooperation succeed in government reform efforts.

Focusing on the "generic" content of good governance needs a settled concept of authority among different public institutions. For example, who is going to monitor the Supreme Court and at what level? The idea of placing its supervision under the legislature is not very promising. The last example of selecting the Supreme Court judges by legislators was criticized given its lack of transparency and its subjective considerations.

There are suggestions to make decisions in the Supreme Court accessible for the public through a publication and a website. This seems a good idea although it will need much pressure to overcome the Court's likely resistance.

Given that public institutions are rather loose in terms of authority, there is a tendency to rely on public participation in governance reform. And here comes the next problem: How ready are the civic bodies to assume this role and what kind of public do we have?

Although countless new civic bodies have been set up since the onset of reform, few are professionally managed or have experts to work at the design and conceptual level. These organizations are under pressure to tackle different issues from one another and many lack focus. Moreover, those that are professionally managed may know well how to deal with other professional groups but they sometimes lack capacity to deal with the community. They need other organizations to inform them on what is happening at the level of formal structures and in the community.

On the other hand, civic bodies with many activities among the community are still learning to encourage wider public participation. They used to work with community groups in what is called a "close circuit" approach, only defending the needs of whom they represent in a fairly narrow way. The principle of social responsibility that potentially connects different groups is not well developed. For instance, non-governmental organizations supporting workers would be expected to be more capable of drawing up strategies taking into account the different interests of workers and employers.

Developing social responsibility is clearly an important part of creating a public more prepared to press on with governance reform at the formal level. Indonesians have been distracted by previous systems which accept personal ways of solving conflicts and resource allocation. Public institutions are considered corrupt and ineffective.

Hence a chicken-and-egg situation develops where people are not enthusiastic in pressing for governance reform; while governance reform can hardly be successful without public participation. Strategies to create public enthusiasm in governance reform therefore become crucial.

People may indeed not care much about legal reform, but they would surely be interested in a better public service. The next step is to develop simple methods to enable wider participation. We could learn from developing countries with longer histories of public movements, like India and Brazil.

Then there is the need of capacity building for civic organizations. Experience shows that more training is needed. New forms of collaboration between different organizations will increase the energy of governance reform programs. For this purpose, a new system of recording human resources and other kinds of capacities of each local organizations may be needed.

The writer is a sociologist and governance specialist at an international development agency in Jakarta.