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Fading hope of bureaucratic reform

Jakarta Globe - September 15, 2011

Rendi A. Witular, Jakarta A 12-year jail term for graft and an ongoing trial on five counts of criminal charges have failed to convince the government to dismiss junior tax official Gayus Tambunan from his position as a civil servant.

The poster boy of corruption at the tax office, Gayus was convicted in court last year for accepting bribes, failing to report a gratuity, money laundering and bribing law enforcement officials to escape graft charges.

Due to rigid and overly protective civil service regulations, the Finance Ministry had to make a mammoth effort merely to get rid of Gayus.

Since his notorious case unraveled in January last year, it took the ministry three months to gain sufficient legal grounds to boot him out, only to have the ruling withheld after Gayus challenged the decision with the Civil Servant Agency (BKN).

Incongruously, more than a year later, the BKN seems to have become lost in its own labyrinth of bureaucracy as officials claimed they would need more evidence to support a case to officially endorse the ministry's dismissal of Gayus.

With the BKN failing to issue its verdict, Gayus' employment as a civil servant still stands, along with his continuing entitlement to salary and benefits.

Gayus and other state employees, comprising civil servants, police and military personnel, have long enjoyed the "protection" of contentious Law No. 43/1999 on the principles of state employees.

The law provides little room for the immediate dismissal of civil servants, regardless of their violations. Civil servants and other state employees can play table tennis all day, for example, without any fear of being fired.

The law also ensures that civil servants who commit a crime and end up serving less than five years in prison will not lose their pension rights.

The rigidity of the law has forced reform-minded ministers to seek outsiders non-civil servant professionals with integrity to fill top bureaucratic posts with the aim of speeding up reform.

Recruiting junior civil servants to fill top posts is also impossible under the law, as they are required to serve for least 20 years before they can achieve the minimum required ranking to hold such a position.

But even as such juniors emerge to become professional bureaucrats, their seniors may have corrupted them along the way with ingenious tricks to plunder state revenue.

It is not an exaggeration to note that the general decay in bureaucracy and state service management has been left to fester both by this law and the absence of other, supporting bureaucracy regulations. Furthermore, calls for amendments to the law have been in vain.

Since the fall of the authoritarian Soeharto regime in 1998, the country's bureaucrats have mostly been untouched by reform. The only success story of any attempt at reform is perhaps in relation to the Finance Ministry, initiated by former finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

She increased the prosperity of ministry officials and established a special internal policing division, which expelled corrupt officials from key posts, improved bureaucracy and imposed severe sanctions on recalcitrant officials.

Mulyani's achievements illustrate the country's hitherto most successful bureaucratic and civil service reform, testament to which was fewer complaints of extortion filed by businesses.

However, it has left many wondering if the reformed ministry can be sustained as it was merely shaped by Mulyani's improvisation, and does not stem from a fundamental change in laws aimed at igniting an overhaul across all areas of bureaucracy.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has endlessly pledged to reform the entire state's employee management and bureaucracy since 2004, seems reluctant to "walk the talk" due to concerns that rocking the metaphorical system's boat may infuriate some 4.5 million state employees.

For Yudhoyono, the stakes are high. His Democratic Party would likely lose votes from furious civil servants and their families in the upcoming 2014 general election. Moreover, politicians are benefiting from maintaining the status quo in the bureaucratic system: A corrupt state employee is the best partner in crime to plunder taxpayers' money.

Since 2005, the Office of the State Minister for Administrative Reforms has come up with a package of seven draft bills needed for swift reforms in bureaucracy and state employee management. Two bills on public service and governance administration were passed by the House of Representatives in 2009 but, so far, they have had no effect, as the government has yet to issue the necessary supporting regulations.

Four other bills, namely: amendments to the principals of state employees law; ethics in state governance; authority between central and local governments, and public service institutions and nonprofit organizations; and a national supervision system are likely to be shelved by the current state minister.

In a recent talk with the State Minister for Administrative Reforms E.E. Mangindaan, who is a senior politician with the Democratic Party, he revealed an entirely new plan to reform the management of state employees and the bureaucracy. Instead of continuing the strategy of his predecessor fellow Democratic Party politician Taufik Effendi to pass the remaining four bills through the House, Mangindaan has decided to start from scratch.

He has set up a new committee to list all the problems plaguing the bureaucracy despite hundreds of seminars and research papers that have already pointed out the flaws and problems within bureaucracy management since 2004. Moreover, Mangindaan did not confirm whether he would aim to amend the law on the principles of state employees before the committee completes its study.

Vice President Boediono, tasked by Yudhoyono with spearheading the reform, is also setting up his own team to identify existing problems and provide recommendations for future action.

Although the administration has less than three years remaining until the next elections, policymakers seem to be enjoying more the task of organizing additional seminars, drafting new concepts, attending meetings in luxurious hotels and flying overseas to conduct comparative studies on bureaucratic reform, rather than taking concrete steps toward reform now.

Even if the existing law on state employees is amended, and/or new bills introduced to kick-start the reform process, these efforts are unlikely to bear fruit anytime soon. Aside from the expected lengthy deliberations at the House, which may take even longer as lawmakers are now fully engaged with pooling financial resources for the upcoming election, the passed laws would first need several government regulations to come into effect in order to be implemented.

Confronted with such possible hurdles, and coupled with the reported resistance from the corps of state employees over repairs to the system, the reform plan is likely to fall by the wayside.

[The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.]

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