The March of Democracy: Can the DPR be more effective?

Tom Cormier
Deputy Country Director for Indonesia, National Democratic Institute

Tom Cormier, NDI’s Deputy Country Director for Indonesia, reported on a survey of the Indonesian House of Representatives (the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, or DPR) members with recommendations for reforms based on their responses. NDI’s well established presence has enabled the organization to work with the DPR to examine problems and possible solutions, Cormier said.

Indonesia has made progress in its reform process in recent years. There have been four constitutional amendments that indicate a reform mindset in the government and a desire to have the ability to check the executive branch:

  • The president is directly elected
  • The DPR has the right of legislative initiative
  • The military is now out of politics
  • Reduced power of the Majelis Perwakilan Rakyat (MPR), formerly the supreme legislative body
  • The establishment of a constitutional court
  • The changes seem to indicate that Indonesia is serious about reforming its government.

When a legislative proposal is brought forward by either the executive or the legislative branch, both sides must agree to the concept by appointing a representative (a standing commission in the case of the DPR and a Minister in the case of the executive) before the legislative process can begin in the DPR. Although there is no formal right of veto for the President at the end of the legislative process (a bill automatically becomes law 30 days after it is passed), both the legislature and the executive can be said to have a veto at the outset by simply not appointing a representative on any given legislative proposal.  While the DPR’s ability to draft its own legislation is improving, many members feel that more and better qualified legal drafters and researchers would help strengthen the quality of the legislative drafts.

The legislators in the DPR are feeling pressure from their constituents and the media to increase their performance, and they are frustrated at their inability to respond. With funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), NDI was able to conduct a study of the DPR and meet with members, and also examine other countries for comparative information. From this, three main concerns were raised: the operating budget, the supporting staff and the rules of procedure.

The Operating Budget

The DPR does have power to approve the entire state budget, but, ironically, it does not have full authority over its own operating budget. There is a lack of transparency in the operating budget process that can leave members feeling they do not know enough about the details and what they entail. The operating budget is drafted by the Secretariat General of the DPR in a system that was essentially in place before Reformasi.  In the NDI survey, members overwhelmingly expressed a desire for more direct involvement in the setting of operating budget priorities.  The budget draft is prepared after meetings between the bureaus in the Secretariat General and is then given to the Secretary General of the DPR. The House Affairs Committee (BURT) then receives and reviews the draft, with the House Leadership receiving a copy of the draft sent to the BURT.  In this sense, members are responding to the priorities articulated by the Secretariat, rather than setting the priorities at the outset of the process.

Cormier said that Indonesian budgets are often vague with some line items that do not clearly explain the purposes of expenses. This makes it difficult for members to judge whether the operating budget is allocated in a manner that places a priority on supporting services for members as opposed to administration.  Pertaining to the regulation of members’ salaries, for example, the average salary is nominally $400 per month.  However, this turns out to be about $3,000 once benefits are included. Some of the benefit components are regulated by executive regulations (ex: rice allowance) and many allowances are included in the total salary regardless of whether the member uses them or not.

Staffing the DPR

Another challenge is the lack of staffing. There are now about 2,000 support staffers for the whole of the DPR.  The majority of the staff in the DPR are national civil servants meaning that the recruitment and oversight of these employees is often outside the purview of the DPR members themselves. Staff numbers have increased over the years, as each member now has one staffer, which is an improvement from one staffer for every four members. However, the staff performs primarily administrative functions and is not capable of performing research.  In the NDI informal survey, 69% of the DPR members feel they do not have sufficient staff; only 29% felt their staff was adequate. It is positive to note that the members recognize this inadequacy, as they understand this problem needs to change. As it is, minutes of meetings are not often recorded at “transcript predictability.” The lack of reliable minutes does not allow the DPR to defend itself, if needed, in the constitutional court.  The lack of a reliable public record also makes it difficult for the media, citizens and legislators themselves to keep track of what is transpiring in the institution.

In addition, there is a lack of information access in the decision making process. The DPR does have a research branch, but research products are often too academic for what the politicians actually need to know. The NDI survey indicated that 69% of DPR members have not actually heard about the research branch’s existence. In NDI’s survey, only a quarter of members questioned felt they had access to sufficient information to enable them to make decisions.

Operational Procedures

There does need to be more study on the actual house procedures. Most of the decisions passed in the DPR are based on consensus, and votes are only taken in rare circumstances.  This is perhaps more of a reflection on culture, as voting is allowed in the process. One suggestion would be to actually record who consented and thus increase accountability. There are only about four to five votes taken per year. As it is, the rules for voting are not clear. The chairpersons on committees often feel the rules do not protect them if they were to cut off a process and move forward.

Meetings among the members often conflict with other schedules and can create delays in the DPR. Quorum regulations requiring the presence of over 50% of members and fractions result in many meetings being postponed or delayed.  International experience provides many examples of legislatures with different quorum requirements depending on whether or not a decision is being taken.  When meetings do occur, there is not enough regulation of interruptions, questions and answers and even the length of time one is able to speak. One suggestion would be to strengthen the duties of the chairperson to give him/her the power to enforce any such regulations. By strengthening the procedural rules, the DPR’s performance could become more efficient.

Recommendations

Some of the recommendations for improving the operating budget include allowing the DPR to have greater financial autonomy, strengthening the House Affairs Committee (BURT) and increasing transparency.  Mr. Cormier listed a few recommendations for the support staff, including an increase in the staff’s efficiency, reform of the current recruitment process, changes in the composition of the DPR staff and reform of the DPR personnel management system.  To strengthen the rules of procedure, it is recommended that the DPR formulate clearer authorities for the chairpersons, consider time limits on debates and interventions, examine different quorum requirements for certain types of meetings and ensure that minutes of every meeting are recorded and published, and linking the procedural rules with the Code of Ethics.

Donors can also involve themselves in the reform of the DPR by encouraging discussion and by responding to calls for assistance from the DPR. Discussion should be encouraged, when possible, among members, the civic community and by business groups.

Q: What are the dynamics of the DPR membership and how does this affect debate?

A: 70% of members in the current parliament are new and this makes it quite different from the last one. There are many champions of reform among them.  About half of the members are under fifty. However, when members do not receive proper briefings before meetings, the level of debate can lower. This research tries to stay focused on the structural reasons for the inadequate performance of the DPR.

Q: Is the electoral system moving to an increasing accountability? Is this a strong presidency with the DPR acting as more of a rubber stamp?

A: There needs to be greater accountability in the DPR. Legislators were elected on a multi-member district basis, so we are moving in the right direction.  The members do not always speak convincingly for their districts as many go home only about four times a year during the recess periods, when the DPR facilitates this travel.  The DPR may wish to consider measures to facilitate greater interaction with citizens through increased travel and support services.    Members need to be more in touch with their constituents and the local NGOs, etc. In general, the DPR strives for a very cooperative relationship with the executive, but it has proven it can be effective in exercising its budget and oversight powers.  Increasing the capacity of the DPR to undertake these important functions could lead to more accountability and better governance.

Q: Are their cultural factions among the DPR?

A: The desire to build consensus on all issues is a firmly held cultural principle in Indonesia.  However, as issues become more complex and parties become more competitive, this may become more difficult to achieve.  Legislatures should reflect the diversity of opinions that exist in society and there appears to be a growing frustration among citizens who see contradictions in society that are not necessarily reflected in the decisions taken by the DPR.

Q: Is this a problem of inertia? Do older members not want to let the current system go?

A: It can be said that there are those that some may benefit from the status quo in the DPR.  There are three parties that have been in the DPR for decades and may have a higher comfort level with the way things are.  However, it seems clear that the large number of newly elected legislators is expressing a desire for change and this is having an impact.  Some of the lack of movement on this issue can be attributed to the fact that the DPR is so busy with the challenge of passing and reviewing legislation and the budget and undertaking oversight that it often lacks the time to focus on these important structural issues.

Tom Cormier manages NDI’s governance programs at both the national and local level. His work focuses on skills-building for legislators and staff and he has led efforts to research institutional development issues that face legislatures at all levels. NDI was established in Indonesia in 1996.

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“There is an emphasis in Indonesia on the executive branch to solve problems.  I want to suggest that the private sector also has a role,” as whistle blowers and models of proper ethics.  He called for leadership from the top echelons of private corporations.

Dr. Leonard Ginocchi, a USINDO member and career official in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, commented on a survey he had authored and conducted with members of USINDO and the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce.  Of 269 respondents (168 in English, 101 in Indonesian) 52 percent of English-language respondents said they had personal experience of corruption, compared with 33 percent of Indonesian-language respondents.  Administrative (government bureaucrats) corruption was seen as the biggest problem.  “Facilitation payments” were seen as a tolerable business expense by 50 percent of English speakers, while 82 percent of Indonesians said these payments were not tolerable.  This suggests that the Westerners take a more pragmatic approach and view payments as a business expense, while Indonesians take a moral view that corruption is a violation of public trust.  The latter view may of course reflect the politically correct response in the current era of reform.

Joe Babiec, leader of the international financial sector resilience practice at Booz Allen Hamilton consultants, suggested that, aside from moral or financial implications, the burden of corruption seriously compromises Indonesia’s competitiveness in the global market.  “Corruption and money laundering are insidious beyond mere ‘transaction costs,’” he said.  They are a deeper threat to the productivity of the economy and the creation of competitive industries that create wealth for the country.”

A more transparent, more interdependent economy means fewer secrets and more vulnerability to investigation and possible prosecution.  This is not an option in a globalized world, Babiec said, and must be faced.  Indonesia must come to accept that its cultural peculiarities mean international competitive disadvantage.  The “intense energy” required to making markets and regulations clear and transparent is not being spent by the government, he said.  But, he added, government cannot do it all.  The private sector (business) as well as civil society must also play a role.  The corporate sector is more adept at knowing the international system but there is reluctance in Indonesia to accept it fully.  The civil sector is important in keeping the other two honest, he said.

A questioner asked how the increasing use of the informal Islamic financial service sector would affect competitiveness.  He answered that no one has yet figured out how to make these services work in a formal, transparent manner.  “Indonesia could figure this out and export this indigenous service with the result of increasing its global competitiveness,” he said.