Kharisma Priyo Nugroho, Knowledge Sector Initiative in Indonesia

23 November 2015

The Knowledge Sector Initiative(KSI) is a joint programme between the governments of Indonesia and Australia that seeks to improve the lives of the Indonesian people through quality public policies that make better use of research, analysis and evidence. To achieve results, the programme is strengthening existing hubs of research institutions, governments, and civil society organisations in Indonesia.

Leandro Echt: How did you arrive to KSI?

Kharisma Nugroho: I worked at the Asia Foundation in Indonesia managing the Knowledge Sector Pilot of KSI between March 2010 and May 2013, a programme aimed at determining what types of capacity development interventions were the most effective in improving research and organisational effectiveness of supply side organisations. [Editor’s note: On Think Tanks produced a series of think pieces for this pilot’s evaluation.] Then I worked at the Millenium Challenge Account-Indonesia for the US government programme in Indonesia. I came to KSI in May 2015 when a restructure of KSI took place.

LE: What are your responsibilities at KSI?

KN: I lead the Knowledge Production and Intermediation programme (KPI) —and now under the new strategy, I am the coordinator of knowledge to policy hubs on learning and capacity development that include looking after partners (grantees). Five out of sixteen current partners were graduated of the Asia Foundation Pilot Program, and I have also been involved in the selection of the other eleven partners. So I already knew them.

LE: What does the restructure of KSI imply in terms of the support to think tanks?

KN: The restructure was triggered by an external mid-term review of KSI. One of the findings had to do with resetting the way KSI manages the relationship with its partners. Core funding is quite new for the think tanks. The review showed that KSI was struggling in finding the right balance for core funding: at one extreme, it was seen as a very restrictive type of funding, where the partner is an implementing agency that acts as a subcontractor; and at the other, it was seen as a very permissive type funding: ‘I give you the money, you whatever you want’. The review showed that KSI oscillated between one extreme and the other.

A second finding referred to the way in which core funding had been managed. There are basically three areas of core funding contribution.

  1. The first is organisational development: helping our partners address their problems of being.
  2. The second area is about research quality: the problems of doing.
  3. The third is about the problems of relating with others.

These areas are interrelated. For instance, you can see the issue of research quality assurance from a technical perspective or considering it as an issue of organisational capacity. The mid- term review showed that KSI was perceived by its grantees as not having clear criteria regarding how to use core funding; this was one of the complaints of the think tanks.

So we decided to apply a problem-driven approach with think tanks through an iterative process: we help our partners, the think tanks, to identify what are the roots of problems they face related to beingdoing or relating, and discuss the possible and feasible solutions. Now, when partners plan their programs, they develop different hypotheses on solutions to address then and test core funding support to implement those solutions.

It is an experimental approach. For instance, partners say that the problem of research quality has to do with the lack of references, so the proposed solution is to revitalise their libraries: hiring librarians, investing in infrastructure for the library, collecting books, etc. KSI trusts them in their hypothesis and lets them experiment. But at the same time partners and KSI need to establish a learning mechanism, a commitment to learning.

Following with the same example, we asked the librarians to make a good record of visitors, collection, etc, and after six months we conducted an evaluation and analyse to what extent the organisation’s research products include the references they have in the collection of the library. In many cases, we found that the investment in revitalising libraries did not have an effect in the improvement of research products. So we do not allow the partner to continue using money in things that are not cost-effective, and explore other alternatives to develop that capacity: we analyse mentoring, for instance, and other solutions.

So the process combines the flexibility to give the partners the opportunity to try their ideas and the rigorousness to search for investments that have real impact in partners’ capacities. Thus, confidence became a key aspect in the relationship between KSI and its partners. This allows KSI to get involved in its partners’ management and organisational transformation, becoming what we call a “critical friend”. This also means that KSI needs to understand the local politics of its partners.

In short, the process of change consists in experimenting, evaluating and learning, and combines flexibility and trust between both parts. It is not a radically new approach for KSI, but since May 2015 we emphasise this approach when relating with partners.

LE: How does KSI intend to manage capacity development of partners?

KN: A third element related to the restructuring of KSI refers to budget-cuts, which suppressed external capacity building activities by KSI towards its partners. Now the partners receive the core funding and manage their own capacity building activities with their own funds. And this changes the role of KSI: while in the past we had the budget to organise workshops and other activities, now we help partners conduct capacity building assessments, strategies that lead to change, etc.

This new role puts KSI in a position in which we need to convince partners to prioritise capacity building. And this is the biggest risk of the programme: capacity building is not our partners’ priority. They might tell you they value capacity development, but in practice they prioritise short-term projects, they do not allocate time of their staff to capacity building initiatives. In the end, the budget for capacity development activities is underspent. We need to convince them that it is strategic for them to invest in capacity development. For instance,  sometimes we speak directly to the Board to tell their members about the importance of capacity building.

LE: What have been the partners’ reaction to these changes at KSI?

KN: Generally they appreciate the flexibility of the programme. But at the same time some of them recognise that actually it is much more difficult for them to manage flexible funding, because they need to think about the best way to invest the funds. This is more difficult than just implementing what a proposal prescribes. With our new emphasis on an iterative approach, partners need to keep looking at the context, considering what works and what does not work in their organisations. They need to establish monitoring, evaluation and learning processes.

LE: How did you manage the transition with the previous person in your position?

KN: Ben Hillman was the former responsible for the activities I conduct today. He planned the transition very well. He shared analysis of critical issues and recommendations. Many of the issues regarding the restructuring were also pointed by him. He also shared some tips on the small politics in the office and how to manage the relationship with team members.

LE: What were the main managerial challenges that you faced when you arrived at KSI in May 2015? 

KN: I am a technical person. This position also requires management skills. I still need to learn how to deal with strategic plans, how to invest time effectively in meetings and policy engagement efforts. In this first six months we have been working on strategic issues such as the strategic plans, staffing, etc. Once we finish this stage, I will have more time to spend with partners. Another challenge is building a system to support our partners regarding technical and organisational capacity.

Also, because KSI uses public funds, we need to show results. The donors of the programme typically want to know concrete results. But building a healthy knowledge sector in a country is a long-term effort. For instance, the donors want our partners to produce research that is relevant to governments. But government priorities may change along the years. Do you want our partners to design their research agenda based on the demand’s priorities? What about issues that are important for society but are neglected by the government? So there is a tension between showing strategic and opportunistic results. The challenge is minding that gap: how do you conduct an intervention that is both strategic and opportunistic?

LE: To what extent does KSI engage with other donors in the think tanks’ world to exchange lessons or work together?

KN: I strongly believe in the importance of linking KSI partners with other think tanks. Typically, these linkages have been promoted through trainings or workshops. But this is difficult to do without a budget that consider these efforts. Building a more organic approach to link think tanks worldwide will be more effective, but also economically feasible. In this sense, we count on some consultants, who besides being mentors for our partners they help them link with different networks.

LE: How does the Indonesian context affect policy research performance?

KN: In Indonesia the politics of policy making have changed dramatically. In the past, policy making was a matter for the government, while universities and civil society advocated for changes. But in the last years we have more researchers working in the government, many of them used to be our partners, so they gained more knowledge regarding the policy making processes.

In this scenario, the challenge is institutionalizing the contestation function of think tanks rather than bringing evidence to the table.

Now we see a competition of evidence: government has its own research units that produce their own evidence, and civil society needs to object to and discuss that evidence. But contestation is not only a technical issue, it is also political: it is no only about comparing technical evidence with technical evidence, but also technical evidence with political evidence. For instance, technical evidence shows that using condoms reduce virus transmission, but political evidence says that it is not possible to declare using condoms a national policy because strong Islamic groups will complain. So in this new scenario KSI and its partners need to achieve an accurate understanding of the political environment.