Complexity and paradox: lessons from Indonesia

11 July 2018

The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus once said that “the only thing that is constant is change”. And the international development industry is certainly obsessed with instigating it (and not always for the good). There are lots of tools, frameworks and manuals freely available outlining how development practitioners (including think tanks) should go about promoting change. For instance, they’re told to plan their influencing work (as if it’s a science) by answering questions like who you want to influence and how you want to influence them or more likely, develop a theory of change. However, in practice, I find that knowing exactly ‘who’ and ‘what’ one wants to influence and ‘how’ is far from straightforward. For instance, many times, one comes across paradoxes, which “involve contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time”, which limits the extent to which one can produce neat plans for influencing and follow through on a single course of action. Let me illustrate this with an example from recent research for the DFAT funded Knowledge Sector Initiative on elite policymaking processes in Indonesia.

We’re often advised to identify and work with champions or policy entrepreneurs within the ‘system’. In Indonesia, there’s no doubt that committed and competent individuals in senior positions within the bureaucracy have had tremendous influence on policy. In some cases, these people have influenced the motivations and commitment of many of its staff as well as ensure that that expertise was brought in to inform policy deliberations. In relation to reform of the Indonesian bureaucracy, this was certainly the case with Minister Abubakar and Vice Minister Prasojo both at the Ministry of Empowerment of State Apparatus and Bureaucratic Reform (KemenPANRB) being very influential in ensuring the issue remained a priority under the previous presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).

But champions and policy entrepreneurs tended to come and go, sometimes rapidly. For instance, one interviewee suggested that the three things that KemenPANRB had to support them in their reform efforts – competency, commitment and authority – had all but disappeared with the removal of Prasojo and Abubakar after the inauguration of Indonesia’s current president, Joko Widodo.

And powerful individuals were both constrained and enabled by the people around them (above and below them in the hierarchy), both formally and informally. Take SBY, the former president who had significant formal powers to approve laws. He didn’t or couldn’t, take decisive action without significant backing from key interlocutors. He seemed more of a moderator than a decision maker, making efforts to reach consensus among the different players in the executive before engaging with the parliament (where laws were formally discussed).

High-level supervisors who SBY appointed to promote action on a variety of pressing issues including bureaucratic reform – vice President Boediono and Kuntoro Mangkusubroto (the head of the former President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight (UKP4) – were unable to promote compromise amongst senior government officials. And to add to the story, SBY was also constrained by his most trusted aid the state secretary who in turn had close family connections with Diah Anggraeni, the powerful secretary general of the Ministry of Home Affairs (Kemendagri), who argued that the bureaucracy would be in disarray if radical change occurred.

So, we find the existence of powerful individuals, who are members of formal and informal groups and networks, which shape their behaviour. At the same time the actions and thoughts of group members are shaped by powerful individuals. This highlights one of countless situations in which practitioners are torn between two (or more) contending courses of action, both of which have merit but which appear unable to co-exist. For instance, does one invest limited resources into engaging with and developing the capacities of key champions across government (knowing that doing so could be divisive, that they may fail to influence those around them, and in any case could be replaced or rotated out of position)? Or does one invest in convening key groups to strengthen discourse, to explore differences and build commitment towards shared objectives (knowing that this could lead to group think, the pursuit of lowest-common-denominator consensus, as well as conflict and fallout, leading to stuckness)? In this situation, think tanks may avoid this dilemma by trying to find a middle ground hoping that contradictions disappear, they may settle on one side of the paradox by, say, working with champions (which may have detrimental effects given their membership of certain groups). Or they may go back and forth between working with specific groups and particular individuals.

What might think tankers do if they were to address this dilemma head on? I don’t propose to provide answers (and I’d hope you’d be suspicious if I did). What I can say is that think tankers will probably have to explore promoting both collaborative group dialogue and individual excellence. Quite how this is done will depend on the skill, creativity and experience of think tankers. Rather than follow a step by step plan, think tankers will need to get back to smart entrepreneurial thinking. They will need to be careful not to make assumptions or draw on guesses about what sorts of actions are likely to work. Instead think tanks need to take the time to understand the context they are working in and how the struggle for power and resources is unfolding between key protagonists. They will need to acquire the courage to act and learn from the consequences of one’s owns actions. And do this through frank ongoing deliberations (however difficult that might be) amongst themselves (perhaps with the support of ‘critical friends’) rather than one off studies. Put another way, I suggest that think tanks, in the words of Duncan Green, ‘learn to dance with the system’.

To find out about six other paradoxes that shape the policymaking context in Indonesia, read the KSI working paper: policy, change and paradox in Indonesia.