The onthinktanks interview: Dr Asep Suryahadi
[Editor’s note: This interview was done by Vita Febriany, a member of SMERU staff].
Vita Febriany: Can you briefly tell me about your background and how you became the director of The SMERU Research Institute?
Asep Suryahadi: After completing my PhD study in economics at the Australian National University, I returned to Indonesia at the end of 1998. At that time Indonesia was in deep economic and political crises, which was part of the wider Asian financial crisis. A few days after my return, I received a message from a long time friend, Sudarno Sumarto, to meet him at his office. I first met him ten years before when I joined the Center for Policy and Implementation Studies (CPIS), an economic think tank providing policy advice to the government.
After the new year, I met him and he asked me to join him in the newly established Social Monitoring and Early Response Unit (SMERU). It was an ad hoc unit established by the government and donor community, managed by the World Bank resident mission in Jakarta, and tasked with monitoring the social impact the ongoing crisis. I was asked to run its quantitative analysis division, with the main task of analysing various data sets collected by the government’s statistical agency (BPS).
At the end of 2000, the government and donor community agreed that the crisis was over and SMERU had to cease its existence. The staff, however, decided to continue to work together and hence we established the SMERU Research Institute as an independent organization in January 2001, with Sudarno as its first director. I continued to be the coordinator of its quantitative analysis division. When we decided to merge the three research divisions – quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis, and regional autonomy – into one research division in March 2003, I was appointed as the deputy director for research. I was appointed as the director in August 2009 when Sudarno left to take a one year fellowship at Stanford University.
VF: What motivated you to work for this institute?
AS: I felt at home at SMERU since the first time I joined it as I like doing research and the job was basically similar to my previous job at CPIS. In fact, many of SMERU staffs were my former colleagues at CPIS. Hence, when I joined SMERU, I felt as if I was going back to my old institution and did not require too many adjustments. Both at CPIS and SMERU, we try to use our research findings to improve government policies that affect the lives of many people. This gives us a sense that our job is important and we contribute to the efforts to improve people’s welfare.
Another important motivating factor for me to work at SMERU is the fact that Indonesia’s research sector is lagging behind both other developing countries at similar level of development and our neighbours in Southeast Asia. Hence, working at SMERU gives us a feeling that we are contributing to the development of the research sector in Indonesia in order to both catch up with other countries and at the same time show the benefits of research for development. So we expect that both the government and the private sector will be more motivated to invest in research in this country.
VF: What were the main challenges that you faced as the Director of SMERU?
AS: The most important challenge for SMERU is to ensure its financial sustainability. Currently around a half of SMERU’s operational cost is covered by a core funding from AusAID, while the remaining half is met by revenues from commissioned research and research grants. Hence, SMERU is financially vulnerable if the grant from AusAID came to an end.
Another important challenge that we face is to maintain the quality of our research. This is crucial for SMERU’s existence as it determines the credibility of the policy recommendations that we formulate and, in the end, greatly influences the stream of funding that we receive. In particular, we need to put our attention into three aspects that can affect our research quality. First, we need to keep up with the latest developments in research methods. Second, we need to make sure that we implement our research – from research design, data collection and analysis, to report writing – with the highest standard. Third, we need to transfer the knowledge that we have accumulated over the years to new researchers that we recruit from time to time.
VF: What do you think is SMERU’s contribution to public policy in Indonesia?
AS: Over the years SMERU has been active in the policy arena in Indonesia, in particular on socio-economic issues. It is difficult to pin point exactly the overall contribution of SMERU because it varies from one policy issue to another. In some cases, SMERU directly plays a leading role in shaping up a policy. The most recent example is in the formulation of the Master Plan for Acceleration and Expansion of Poverty Reduction, which is popularly known as the MP3KI, where SMERU was requested by the government to lead in the writing up of the policy document.
In other cases, the findings of SMERU studies are used as references by the government and other stakeholders in formulating a policy. There are many examples of such cases, but a prominent one is in the area of cash transfer policy.
On the other hand, there are cases where SMERU’s recommendations have not had any discernible impact on policy despite compelling evidence for a policy change. An example of this is in the subsidized rice program. Due to various problems in its implementation, the program is ineffective in terms of its impact on improving welfare of the poor. Therefore, SMERU has recommended to significantly reduce the coverage of this program only to the chronic poor. However, so far there have been no significant changes in the implementation of this program.
Overall, I think it will be fair to say that the contribution of SMERU in shaping social policy in Indonesia has been quite significant.
VF: What do you think is SMERU’s contribution to the society?
AS: I believe that largest contribution of SMERU to Indonesian society comes from better public policy that positively affects people’s lives. In addition to that, SMERU makes its research reports and other outputs publicly available, including through its website. This has provided society with useful resources that they can use for various purposes. It ranges from students who use our reports as references for their papers and theses to NGOs which use our reports for their own advocacy and other activities.
SMERU also regularly holds seminars and workshops, which mostly are open for public. This provides the public with a forum for them to engage in public policy discussions. We also receive numerous visits from international delegations, consultants to the government and international organizations, academics and students from various universities, both domestic and international, to have discussions with us on various topics.
In addition, SMERU produces various tools that can be used for policy and other purposes. For example, SMERU has created a poverty map of Indonesia, which provides poverty estimates for small areas, up to the village level, in all over the country. This poverty map has been widely used by various parties, both government and non-government organizations, for various purposes. SMERU is now in the process of updating and improving the poverty map using the latest data available and incorporating more information, so the new map is expected to meet the needs of wider stakeholders.
VF: How can you measure this?
AS: What we do is to document all of our activities, engagement, and impact as far as possible. For example, if a SMERU staff attended a policy discussion, he or she has write a report about it, including when and where the discussion was held, who were present there, and what the main points that were discussed there. Then every six month we will compile all of these reports and write it up in our biannual report, which then will be presented ad discussed in a meeting with our donors and other stakeholders.
However, more comprehensive measurements of our contributions and impact are usually done by our donors. They regularly conduct a review of our institutions, more or less every three years. They usually hire independent reviewers to do the review, who will do the review not only based on the documents and reports that we have provided, but also talking directly to our stakeholders to try to measure our impact. We find these independent reviews quite useful and have used their recommendations as the basis for improving our operation.
VF: What advice would you give to someone who wants to establish a new think tank?
AS: One thing that I have learnt is that context matters a lot. SMERU was established when Indonesia was in a transition from an authoritarian governance, where the government can get away with any policy they make, to a democratic governance, where every government policy is openly questioned and debated. This means now that the government needs evidence as the basis of any policy they make. On the other hand, there were not many of organizations capable of supplying evidence for policy. With this background of increasing demand and lack of supply of evidence, SMERU was able to capitalize the situation and develop itself into an established policy research institution in the country.
So it is very important to understand your context. We cannot just copy successful think tanks in other countries as a model because it may not work in our country. This is not to say that we should not learn from other organizations as certainly there are useful lessons that other organizations can provide. However, by understanding our context, we will be able to set reasonable objectives that we want to achieve as well as determine how we can operate effectively and efficiently.
VF: What personal or professional characteristic should a director of a think tank have?
AS: I think this largely depends on what the responsibilities of a think tank director are, which may be different from one think tank to another. At SMERU, the director is responsible for managing the organization – including administration, finance, research, and publication – as well as achieving the objective of influencing policy. In addition, a SMERU’s director is also responsible for securing funding for the organization. So ideally the director will have the combined stature of an efficient manager, an effective communicator, and an intelligent businessperson. Of course these tasks can be delegated to appropriate deputies, depending on the size and resources of a think tank. However, the ultimate responsibilities remain with the director.
VF: What are the tips for successful engagement with public sectors and/or other sectors of society?
AS: The most important capital for a think tank is its credibility in front of the government, its donors, its other stakeholders, and the public in general. It is enormously important for a think tank to invest in building up its credibility by consistently maintaining the quality of its outputs. This includes keeping up with advances in research methodology, making sure that its researches are implemented rigorously, carefully scrutinizing that its in-house publications are of high standard, and pursuing publications in peer reviewed journals. In the end, this adherence of quality output will determine its standing in front of its stakeholders and, consequently, the demand for its services.
In addition, a think tank has to be able to respond quickly to a request from the government and the stakeholders. When the government needs a policy advice, it often arises from a pressing situation which requires the government to act quickly, hence they cannot afford to wait for a think tank to do a research first in order to find the proper answer to the policy question. This means that a think tank needs to accumulate knowledge from which it can have ready answer to many possible policy questions that may arise. This also implies that a think tank needs to develop a good knowledge management system, so that it can store and retrieve knowledge effectively.
[Note from Enrique Mendizabal: Back in 2011, SMERU hosted me for a couple of weeks in Jakarta. I had the opportunity to learn first hand about the organisation, its challenges and opportunities. I was particularly impressed by the way in which its research staff was managed -I promise to write about this soon.]