It’s people, not papers, who matter: how policymakers acquire knowledge in Indonesia

17 August 2018

Funders around the world have provided considerable support to (non-governmental) think tanks, assuming they are well placed to influence government policy by, amongst other things, producing and sharing short and punchy written outputs like policy briefs and blog posts. However, a number of research papers (here, here, here and here) exploring how policymakers make decisions in Indonesia challenge these assumptions.

These papers reveal that, when mid-level Indonesian policymakers in both large ‘spending ministries’ as well as smaller ‘influencing ministries’ are tasked with, say, developing or revising a regulation or law, their first priority is to acquire, not research, but relevant statistical data. Seen as objective, data helps policymakers to, for instance, identify current trends, recognise issues that need to be addressed, assign targets and/or demonstrate impact.

However, some policymakers find it difficult to access good quality data. Others struggle to make sense of the huge amounts of data that exists: data on its own fails to indicate causes of trends and does not point to potential solutions. This is where research can help.

When research is sought, it is to provide context, inform a strategy or defend or legitimise an existing decision. Questions are usually generated in an ad hoc manner and are often driven by directives from senior policymakers. However, if policymakers have a question which research can help answer, they are often unwilling to admit to a lack of knowledge, tend to be suspicious of advice that contradicts their own position and, subsequently, fail to articulate their questions to knowledge providers.

When policymakers do seek research, rather than commission and read formal research papers, policymakers are more likely to invite experts (usually as individuals) to provide advice through social processes (which some policymakers refer to as a form of research). These processes usually feature formal and informal meetings or phone conversations, focus group discussions (FGDs), as well as seminars. Examples of these processes include advice offered to a minister in the form of a second opinion or an in-depth FGD with technical experts to discuss trends in data and draw implications for their policy work.

A preference for acquiring knowledge through social processes is a key feature of the Indonesian cultural context. However, this is also because policymakers find it very difficult to formally commission research.  For instance, to procure research (from internal research and development units, where ministries have them) mid-level policymakers have to go through a lengthy and cumbersome chain of approvals until they reach a senior civil servant who can authorise the request. This usually discourages them from making a request at all. In any case, these internal research and development units tend to be marginal structures within most ministries and often lack the capacity to produce high quality research.

Exactly who policymakers invite to an FGD, for instance, depends both on the issue and on their personal, academic alumni and professional networks. Qualifications, knowledge and experience are important but, for most policymakers, trust, developed through at least occasional social interaction, plays a major role as to whether specific experts are invited to make a contribution to policy discussions (resonating with findings from an OTT working paper on think tank credibility). These individuals are usually academics and scholars from national and sub-national level universities (who are themselves civil servants, given the status of higher education institutes in Indonesia).

However, there is significant disparity amongst academics, which reflects the inequality amongst universities. There are some elite universities, mostly public, that have pockets of international excellence and whose experts central line ministries can draw on, often facilitated by international and donor agencies. Academics in these institutions benefit from studies abroad, international collaborations and from attending global workshops and conferences. However, the majority of Indonesia’s universities lack a high-quality research and teaching environment. Academics are mostly taken up with teaching, grading and administrative duties and are not directly remunerated by their university for doing research. This results in poor quality research contributions from many academics.

So, what are think tankers and funders to do? Firstly, think tankers and their funders will need to take the time to understand the context they are working in and the relationships and networks that policymakers and shapers are immersed in.

Where social and informal processes are the norm, rather than seeing them as reinforcing patronage, nepotism and corruption, think tankers and funders might be better off embracing them, viewing them as a reflection of long-standing friendships and shared social histories. At the same time, this shouldn’t prevent longer term work that aims to encourage a diversity of stakeholders to engage with policy processes. The Knowledge Sector Initiative is for instance making efforts to improve the regulatory environment that prohibits policymakers from commissioning think tanks to do high quality research.

If think tankers are working in a context where academics have traditionally played a prominent role within policy circles, they may want to consider working together with academics on research projects, especially those with connections with policymakers (whether they be at national or sub-national levels). They may also want to expand their communication work to include oral testimonies, stories and short messaging in addition to written products.

Funders on the other hand may want to consider how they support improvements in the quality of traditional forms of statistical data, as opposed to Big Data (acknowledging that donors in some contexts have already made considerable attempts to do so). Finally, by taking a more systemic approach to capacity strengthening they may want to explore how they improve the research environment for academics so they are better informed in their conversations with policymakers.