WHEN The government rang to tell Budi (not his real name) that he had been hired as a tax collector, it was like a dream come true. When he graduated from college in 2013, the only job he could find was as a stevedore at the local port. Jobs in his hometown of Ende, a small town on the island of Flores, were scarce. The local government promised a stable income and a pension. Even more important to Budi was the status that came with the job. When he first put on his public service uniform five years ago, “people saw me differently,” he says. “It’s one of the most respected jobs in the region.”
Budi was one of the lucky ones. Last year, some 4.2 million people applied for around 150,000 public service positions. Many are committed to serving their country. Others are lower in spirit. Jobs are hard to find for young Indonesians. In 2019, no less than 26% of people aged 15 to 19 and 16% of those aged 20 to 24 were unemployed and out of school.
In many poorer provinces, the government is one of the largest employers: a 2014 study in the Indonesian part of New Guinea found that in many districts more than one in ten people of age to work were officials. Government salaries are often higher than those of private companies and the jobs are lifelong. Working-class Indonesians see the public service as their path to the middle class, says Pande Made Kutanegara, anthropologist at Universitas Gadjah Mada.
Plus, there is prestige associated with being a government man. During colonial times, the Dutch stripped the local aristocrats of their powers and turned them into bureaucrats. The fallen nobles have given prestige to their humble new posts, says Pande. Today, some senior officials, especially in the far reaches of the archipelago, regard the districts in which they serve as their own personal strongholds.
The reasons why so many Indonesians want to become public servants also explains why, once they are successful, they often fail to serve the people. Public services are uneven, especially at the local government level, which is responsible for, among other things, health care and education. Real per capita spending by local governments soared between 1994 and 2017, by 258% on average, according to the World Bank. But the services remain complicated. More than half of children leave school unable to read properly, for example.
Inefficiency is rife. At the local level, exam results, jobs, promotions and transfers are regularly sold to the highest bidders, according to a study published in 2012 by Peter Blunt and Hendrik Lindroth of the World Bank and Mark Turner of the University of Canberra. Local politicians often reward their supporters with temporary public service positions. Thus, many bureaucrats are not qualified for their jobs. A report released in 2017 by the State Civil Service Agency found that more than 40% of the 696 administrators (the most senior bureaucrats) it assessed were not fit to do their jobs.
Yet, it is almost impossible to fire civil servants. In 2017, only 347 out of 4.3 million were made redundant. “It means that you don’t have this great motivation for your future or to develop yourself,” says Hadiono (not his real name either), who works for the Ministry of Tourism. Workers often walk away from their desks hours before they are. Municipal police in some provinces have been instructed to round up lazy bureaucrats (identifiable by their khaki uniforms) and drop them off at the office, Dr Pande says.
Many civil servants are also looking to increase their incomes through programs that “distract civil servants from their work,” says Kevin O’Rourke, political analyst. Employees of the Ministry of Tourism, for example, receive a generous daily contribution when they travel for work. It is common practice to extend trips a day or two beyond what is necessary, to claim extra money, Hadiono says. Some officials do not stop there. Each year, millions of dollars are siphoned off from the health care system which, with its relatively large budget, is a particularly popular target for criminals. Indeed, corruption is so prevalent that some bureaucrats are afraid to make any decision, lest watchdogs like the Anti-Corruption Commission assume their motives can only be pecuniary, says O’Rourke.
Since the advent of democracy in 1998, there have been many attempts to reform the bureaucracy; an entire ministry is dedicated to the cause. Jobs are better defined and processes have been streamlined. Controllers crack down on spending cheaters. Salaries are now boosted by performance-based compensation. A law that comes into effect next year will make layoffs slightly easier.
Such reforms work, says Rudiarto Sumarwono of the Indonesian Civil Service Commission. Indonesia now ranks 59 out of 100 in the World Bank’s Government Effectiveness Index, up from 24 in 1996 (the higher the rank, the more efficient the government). On the corruption perception index of Transparency International, a watchdog, Indonesia scores 40 out of 100 (where zero is highly corrupt) compared to 28 in 1996. But changing the culture of law will take time. “Old school” officials in their fifties are stuck in their manners, says Mr. Rudiarto, who has hope for the younger generations. Hadiono is less optimistic; a lot of people in their twenties and thirties think that “being a public servant means I can have an easy life.” Even President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, doesn’t seem very keen on overhauling the institution, says O’Rourke.
But the pandemic has shown how urgent reform is. In June, two months after parliament passed its covid stimulus package, only 1.5% of the 75trn rupees ($ 5 billion) budgeted for the health care system had been disbursed, prompting the normally placid Jokowi , to castigate his cabinet for its business-as-. usual response to crisis.
Yet the bureaucracy seems unable to shake off its lethargy. Only one third of the overall government budget of Rs 695tr for the year has been disbursed so far. According to Reuters, the government actually spent a smaller percentage of its budget in the first half of 2020 than during the same period in 2019. As bureaucrats fiddled with each other, the number of covid-19 cases soared in arrow. Along with the Philippines, Indonesia has experienced more deaths from the disease relative to its population than other countries in Southeast Asia. To properly deal with covid-19, it will need to heal its bureaucracy. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Look forward to serving”