The Dilemmas of Budget Advocacy via the Media

21 September 2012

In the Indonesian context,+ it is no easy task to encourage transparent and publicly accountable expenditure of State budgets directed squarely, as the Constitution requires, at the promotion of public welfare. This has certainly been the experience of the National Secretariat of the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency (Seknas FITRA) which for years now has been advocating greater budget transparency and accountability in Indonesia.

Policymakers in both executive and legislative bodies, from the central government down to local administrations, have not automatically taken on board the analyses and ideas advocated by Seknas FITRA. Instead, they have tended to ignore them, along with recommendations advanced by other civil society groups (CSOs) generally.  This situation has arisen because the institutions to which policymakers belong generally have their own policy analysis and research units; and policymakers have been content to rely on the work of those units.

But Seknas FITRA’s studies have shown that these “in-house” units have not been working properly. One indicator of this has been the  government’s failure to translate  constantly larger budgets into equally constant  improvement of people’s welfare.

Seknas FITRA believes this situation is not only due to incompetence in budget policy formulation. Dozens of officials have been convicted of abusing state budgets and many others are standing trial. Court hearings have shown that rampant intentional misuse of taxpayers’ money has been perpetrated for both personal and political gain. This provides “powerful” motivation for culprits to resist outside criticism and to use research by the in-house units as alibis to isolate budget processes from any kind of interference from NGOs.

Despite Indonesia’s relatively new Freedom of Information Law, poor public access to budget-related documents persists —a problem compounded by  lack of public awareness of budget processes.  When combined with the government’s chronic red tape, the result has been a complex situation, hampering Seknas FITRA’s efforts to promote public participation in budgetary processes.

To address this, FITRA turned to a strategy focused on communicating its policy recommendations via print and electronic media—an approach that the organisation had been using consistently since mid-2009 until now- instead of directly talking to government officials.Seknas FITRA believes in the power of the media; and that collaboration with journalists must be able to put more pressure on government to listen and to change.

During the first year of implementation of this strategy, however, the media (both of electronic and print) in national level did not give much coverage to findings of FITRA’s budget research, even though FITRA issued an average of no less than two press releases per week. Moreover, journalists were often conspicuous by their absence from FITRA’s press conferences held to announce research findings.  Overall, only two of Indonesia’s five national media outlets made meaningful room for FITRA’s research findings.

One problem was that daily news was dominated by cases of corruption involving public funds; and, as a result, the media paid more attention to information from CSOs focused on eradicating corruption than proper and transparent public budgeting. There was likely a lack of understanding within the media of the true importance of budget transparency and accountability: advocacy on issues related to budget management were equated with efforts to eradicate corruption. In response, FITRA also improved communication to some journalists personally to explain them the importance of budget issues.

But the media has its own reasons for doing what it does. Promoting and protecting the public interest are among the basic and fundamental goals of any kind of journalism. Hence, when the media tended to be reluctant to allocate space for coverage of Seknas FITRA’s findings, there was clearly something missing in FITRA’s media strategy. The media’s role is like that of a bridge:  when the bridge is missing, catastrophe ensues.

A change of strategy

This situation led Seknas FITRA to think about how to get the media to treat its press releases as newsworthy in their own right. To make that happen, Seknas FITRA studied the specific characteristics of individual media outlets and concertedly developed personal links with specific journalists. FITRA hoped that prominent media coverage of its research findings would help policymakers better understand its ideas and insights on budget management; and, more generally, would make information on budgets more available to the general public.

Today, Seknas FITRA is receiving good coverage in the media and has also become an important source of “second opinions” on budget-related reporting.  Good relationships have been established with journalists; and, some of FITRA’s analyses—for example, on budget-related corruption and budget appropriations for the House of Representatives or the Office of the President—have become headline news.   Any Google search of current news will advert to the existence of some FITRA report or other; and, at worst, not a week goes by without the publication of some kind of news report sourced to Seknas FITRA.

It has taken a long time for FITRA to figure on the media’s radar screen to the point where its research findings are taken up by the media as newsworthy stories.  As FITRA has reflected on this process thus far, it has come to appreciate that budget-related research findings cannot be presented for media coverage in isolation; they need to be placed in the context of other issues already in the public eye.  In other words, budget issues never stand alone: even when they may come to the public’s attention in their own right, they need to be contextualised: how they sit with findings on budget misappropriations, as well as with human values, propriety and justice.

Even with good relations already established with the media Seknas FITRA still faces a number of dilemmas in communicating its budget research findings via the media.  Often, the media only tells part of the story and does not go to the substance of budget policy changes being advocated by FITRA.  The media’s predilection is for “shocking news”. Also, on occasion, its reporting does not accord with information FITRA provides.

Indeed, it sometimes happens that budget-related media reports are presented as being based on FITRA’s research, whereas in fact they are not. From time to time, a particular FITRA researcher is quoted as giving a second opinion, even though the staff member concerned has not done so. In such cases, FITRA does not react: This may seem to be off-handed on FITRA’s part, but FITRA adopts this approach in order to maintain good relations with the media outlet concerned.

The study: learning from the experience

In our study, entitled Where’s our Money Going? Challenges of Budget Transparency and Accountability in Indonesia, Seknas FITRA will reflect in depth upon and analyse its experiences, between 2009-2012, of conducting budget advocacy via the media. The paper will canvass the factors that led Seknas FITRA to adopt the strategy of communicating its research findings to policymakers via the media.  It will reflect upon why the media has carried some it its research findings but not others, taking a particular look at FITRA’s reaction to cases where its material has not been published.

The paper will also include the perspective of the media itself. Have journalists changed their way of treating Seknas FITRA’s releases as it has developed its communication strategy? Has Seknas FITRA managed to raise its profile in the eyes of editors? When one media outlet has chosen not to publish a Seknas FITRA finding while others have done so, what factors did they take into account? How have the variety of media types (online, print, television) and the segmentation of each outlet’s audience affected the exposure given to Seknas FITRA’s research? Have particular outlets had agendas of their own that prevented the research from being published? Or, have those agendas prompted certain media to abuse Seknas FITRA in some way? To what extent would the media take Seknas FITRA as a good source of a news story?

The reflection and discussion with the media carried out in this paper will also help analyse policy changes assessed to have occurred in the wake of the release of FITRA’s research findings.

It is hoped that, so far as Seknas FITRA is concerned, this paper will present an accurate reflection of the effectiveness of its advocacy work thus far so that aspects of that work needing further  development, modification or even revision can be identified, thereby helping Seknas FITRA to achieve its goal of realizing popular sovereignty over State budgets.  As for readers, it is hoped the paper will be a useful point of reference for comparing and contrasting experiences of other CSOs engaged in policy-related advocacy in general or budget advocacy in particular.

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book