Hilmar Farid: Distribution of Power through Inclusive Bureaucracy
Historian, academic, activist, and now senior policy maker; these are the various hats worn by Hilmar Farid, the Director General of Culture at the Ministry of National Education and Culture, in President Joko Widodo’s administration. These diverse identities arise from the long journey behind the man born in March 1968, popularly known as Fay, in his career developing Indonesian human resources. He helped start the Cultural Working Network and Indonesian Social History Institute. His deep interest in culture and history led Fay to become the editor of the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) and the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society. On passing the rigorous selection process, he became the only Director General in the Ministry of Education and Culture who has no government career background
A scholar-activist and now part of the bureaucracy. How do you describe this change in your position?
As a scholar-activist, we examine an issue and then present it with the expectation that such analysis can provide greater clarity on subjects that are not well understood by the public. At the same time, we realise the limitations of this approach, because its effectiveness depends on policy makers. We are only one element among many others involved in decision making. As a bureaucrat, this role is reversed. While we previously recommended that people do something based on analysis, we are now the ones who must make the decisions.
Do you see the change in position from scholar-activist to bureaucrat as a natural progression?
Definitely, that is the reason I became a bureaucrat. A lot of my friends opted to stay on the outside and criticise. They are welcome to keep doing so, but I think it is a missed opportunity, because now there is an open space that enables us to be directly involved from within. From my own perspective as well as those of my friends who are on the inside, the watchdog position is ineffective. Instead of continuing to provide inputs to people who may or may not act on them, it is better if we do it ourselves. For cultural issues, for example instead of writing in newspapers and hoping someone out there is reading and turning it into input for policy making, it is better to do it directly. I know for a fact from my position right now that the process is not like that at all. Our political process is still a way away from public discourse originally initiated by the formulation of the discourse and followed by the absorption of such discourse.
You initiated the Inclusive Maritime culture. How did that progress?
I had initiatives, ideas and goals which must now be followed through. Of course it is easier said than done. Now I can issue a Decree (SK) to accomplish what I’ve dreamed of, but with different challenges and work processes. When we’re on the outside, we are free to state our opinion on anything and discuss one issue after another in workshops with possibly no results or impacts. On the inside, there is no dialogue; I just give the orders and people will follow. In terms of the workload, it is not possible to conduct workshops on the inside. Therefore, the strategy is to create as wide a space as possible for public involvement. This will shift the burden from the individuals within to the office as an institution.
Scholar-activists operate based on evidence. With such a large workload, do you still have room for evidence-based policy?
Very much so. The problem is how to create room for this evidence-based policy. As an illustration, when I came in here, I was given a technical guideline (juknis) to be completed that year. Having reviewed it, I told them that this was just a kind of social assistance activity to distribute money to the people. I said that before proceeding, there needs to be a review on what has been conducted. The review revealed how chaotic this activity was. Going forward, it had to be changed, but not just with the words, “now we are using findings from the field”. In order for evidence-based action to be applied, there needs to be formulaic standards established through a new Ministerial Regulation, followed by a new technical guideline.
As someone within the bureaucracy, how do you view power?
In social theory, power is a social relationship, not something attached to people. When someone is no longer in the position he/she once had, he/she no longer has power. It means that power is embedded in the position and organisational structure. A technical guideline is an operational form of power. Usually, the technical guideline is managed by staff members, despite its strategic nature, which necessitates that it be managed by decision makers. I do not want power to be accumulated by one person, because this will create an uneven power relationship. Power must be distributed to affect a more democratic power relationship. We do this by forming panels that read and assess incoming grant proposals, which I then sign. We do not need to dream about eradicating corruption; simply reduce the space in which people can engage in corruption. If the process is opened up, people will see that the assessor (verifikator) does not have a role in accepting a proposal.
Bureaucracy is supposed to serve the people. If services are not provided, why do people need to pay for them?
The operationalisation of power is also demonstrated in the budgeting process. People congregate around projects. This crowd ignores political ideology or interest groups. These projects lead to budget allocations, making the Budgeting Agency the epicentre of all power. For some bureaucrats, sometimes the Budgeting Agency is not considered strategic. They only monitor their own budget. In fact, the heart of the matter is the proportion of budget distribution, which refers to the National Medium-term Development Plan (RPJMN). So when I talk about change, it does not necessarily have to be something ambitious. The conflicting interests are all rooted in budgeting, and it is not easy to resolve without holding a high enough position.
If you are given greater authority, what will you do?
First, manage the organisational structure, which is the engine of bureaucracy. What we refer to as corruption, high interest loans, etc., are made possible by this engine that we have constructed. Only a ministerial regulation can change this. Second, simplify programmes. Currently, there are too many activities with no umbrella, making it difficult for those at the Echelon One level to coordinate with each other, ultimately causing them to work on their own. So the ministerial position should be strengthened by considering its ability to orchestrate the organisation to create a symphony.