Fajri Siregar is Executive Director at the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance in Indonesia. CIPG is a research-based advisory group that aspires to excel in the area of science, technology, innovation and governance.He joined the On Think Tanks Fellowship Programme in 2017.+
Enrique Mendizabal: Please tell us a bit about yourself?
Fajri Siregar: I am a researcher and aspiring academic who currently leads an equally aspiring think tank in Indonesia. To be more precise, I am currently the Executive Director of CIPG, assuming the role since February 2016. Prior to that I’ve wandered around Indonesia’s development sector before finally realising that research is where I can contribute the most.
EM: How did you come to work at a think tank? Why?
FS: Upon graduating from University Indonesia, I decided that I wanted to work in the development sector. I wanted to solve immediate, practical matters that can make a change. Make real impacts and change real lives. That is why I wanted to join development projects and just put myself out there ‘in the field’. This was pretty much the opposite of what I was trained to do during my undergraduate years. As a sociologist by training, I was taught to observe and understand social phenomenon using rigorous methods and meticulous work. That is why I probably couldn’t wait to graduate, because I simply couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty and get on with ‘solving matters’. The whole theoretical discourse I learned in class were really interesting, but didn’t help much in answering real problems. In hindsight, I was probably too impatient at that moment.
Because soon after I finally got to experience working in development, I encountered this paradox within myself. I started to realise that I was capable of seeing various societal issues from a wider perspective, a helicopter-view. The more I was involved in doing development projects, the more I realised that I still wanted to find out bigger answers. So, I realised that you have to understand first what it is that you want to solve. I became concerned in getting the questions right before starting to get to work. That is when I decided that it is doing research that would suit me the most. It also dawned on me that maybe, one day I’d like to go back to the classroom with a teaching role. That is how I made up my mind and gave myself the shot to actually become a researcher and academic.
EM: What is CIPG? What does it do?
FS: The Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance, or CIPG, is a think tank with a clear aim to research innovation, advance policy and improve governance in Indonesia. Officially, we call ourselves a research-based advisory group but I prefer the term think tank as it says more about who it is we are. Innovation is in many ways a lens from through which we try to understand current changes (or its lack thereof) happening in our country and beyond. We do research in three focus areas, namely Science Technology and Innovation, Inclusive Development and Information and Social Change. To give you an idea, this means our research stretches from mapping co-working spaces in Indonesia to understanding the nation’s cyber policy, and everything in between.
In doing our work, we never separate research from engagement. We want all of our researchers to be engaged with their research objects and results. It’s no use to finish the research process with just a final report and then leave, because we want our young scholars to be able to connect with both policymakers and public afterwards. It is very important to have that passion to do research for social change, and this is a value I try to transmit to our researchers and beyond.
EM: What is your role? How did you get that job?
FS: I like to say that my role is to ensure CIPG stays and becomes even more relevant in Indonesia’s knowledge sector. It is easy for think tanks to become isolated from the outside world due to the one they think they have created. They become so absorbed in their own ‘universe’, solving questions that the general public does not even care about. This is a problem when think tanks become bigger (in size and reputation), and lose valuable time to reflect upon their work.
Going back to your question, I was actually very close to leaving my post as a Research Fellow and moving to a dedicated position at Universitas Indonesia. Just when I was about to leave, the previous management decided that it was time for them to hand over and give the first generation of researchers a shot in managing CIPG. Then there was a process of deliberation and we agreed that I should step up to the plate. The rest isn’t really history because it’s still very much in the making (laughs).
EM: In this role, what have been the biggest challenges you have faced?
FS: The first challenge that I immediately faced was to overcome my own doubts. I knew that I had certain and yet very particular ideas, but I wasn’t sure whether they were in line with the vision of our founders and the understanding of the rest of the management.
Then there were other personal doubts. You know, questions on how to lead a think tank without the necessary experience – I had to learn many technical and organisational know-how from scratch. There are certain skills that I realise I’d lack: I am not the best marketer of my organisation – it is not a skill I expected to be necessary but, as it turned out, proved to be essential for the survival of the think tank. Time management is another matter as I had to work on multiple tasks and jobs such as teaching at the university
Then there are the external doubts: Because of your age – senior government officials and other superiors might have their doubts in seeing you as a senior representative of the organisation. On top of that, I questioned myself to lead a think tank without having enough credentials – with only a Masters degree- as compared to researchers in Northern countries.
So, there it was, the whole range of understanding the foundations of think tank management to trying to kick-start your personal development. But of course It’s always good to see them as challenges rather than obstacles.
Also, I always remind myself not to forget the human aspect of running a think tank. This is the biggest change I’ve tried to instil, striking the right balance between embracing pragmatism and sticking with your idealism. The search for that balance is what should keep us going.
EM: What would you say are the main challenges that think tanks in general face today?
FS: The challenge today is probably to make all of our research, meaning knowledge, data and information, work to inform better policies. It’s the very reason why think tanks exist in the first place and it’s still very much our main driver. It should be the reason why we still come to our offices and believe that our jobs have meaning and purpose.
As I said, staying and becoming relevant is of utmost importance here. You see, building reputation is not an easy task and if our research speaks to nobody, then we’re practically out of our jobs. Think tank researchers trot a different line than university academics. We’re asked to provide solid, rigorous research but with an equally high practicality to help policymakers make decisions. There is no guarantee that every project can deliver this promise. In that sense, we’re no different than private companies who have to keep the quality of their products in order to survive. So there you have your main challenge: to provide data and evidence as if you were a knowledge factory whilst maintaining client relations, who just happen to be your own government.
Then there is this increasing disbelief in science and the whole Post-truth climate, which is also toxic to our sector. Not only us, but to the whole society, with some discouraging signs already showing in the Indonesian context. It was already difficult to have a proper policy dialogue-or debate- using sound evidence as a basis for arguments. Now it will get only more difficult. I do not know how other think tank managers react to this current, but I believe that it adds a layer of challenge to what is already a politically complex atmosphere.
EM: And in the future? What will think tanks in Indonesia be worrying about in the next 5 years -unless they do something about it now?
FS: Sustainability is really the most imminent challenge and I think I’m saying this on behalf of all other think tanks in Indonesia. This mostly regards financial sustainability, as we cannot depend on international development funds forever. I’ve said this many times before on different occasions that local Indonesian think tanks need to think about alternative funding sources or to put it in a simpler way, find local donors. There are many ways to activate new funding channels, but the most feasible for now are knocking on the door of philanthropists and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) which should be utilised for research and development as well. The best way is of course to create a system in which we don’t have to knock on anybody’s door, but where private and public funds can be distributed within a transparent and professionally managed system where everybody has access to this pool of resources.
This is why from now on I would like to encourage fellow Indonesian think tanks to realise that they are part of a bigger ecosystem, namely the knowledge sector. They need to actively shape this ecosystem and not just wait for change to happen. There is a good momentum now to anticipate the future, and today’s situation actually holds a good promise for think tanks as long as we dare to imagine the possibilities. And I believe we have the tools to do so.
At the same time, the future is already here and we are struggling to keep up with it. I’m talking about big data and the implications it has on conventional research. Big Data is of course the talk of town now, especially in the private sector. But I haven’t seen Indonesian think tanks asking critical questions on this matter, even though I myself am quite wary of the implications. This is why I believe that all research organisations, not only CIPG, need to keep up with this latest currents, otherwise think tanks might lose their relevance.
Much related with the sustainability issue, I really believe that we need to revisit our business model and think of new service lines if we want to maintain our relevance. The private sector has already shown the way forward with their usage of data and if think tanks prefer to remain in their comfort zone, they will be out of the picture pretty soon.
EM: You have joined the On Think Tanks Fellowship Programme. How do you think this will help you and your organisation?
FS: Joining the On Think Tanks Fellowship is not only my personal milestone, but also a valuable one for our organisational capacity. My taking part in the course will be a big boost for our researchers, as it will provide them an example of the opportunities this think tank has to offer. I want them to think beyond the horizon and look out for any personal capacity building options available. I want this fellowship to be an example for the rest of the team.
But most importantly, the fellowship should be able to help me translate all those ideas into valuable action. To make the intangible tangible. I believe that it will help me gain new competences and know-how to better lead and manage my organisation. I certainly hope that it will enhance my capacity in order to improve that of others.