Q&A: Amzulian Rifai, chair of the National Ombudsman

Author

Tim Mann is the editor of Indonesia at Melbourne

New chair of Indonesias National Ombudsman, Amzulian Rifai is trying to change the image of an institution that is often dismissed as toothless. Photo by Indonesia at Melbourne.
The new chair of Indonesia’s National Ombudsman, Amzulian Rifai, is trying to change the image of an institution that has often been dismissed as toothless. Photo by Indonesia at Melbourne.

 

Indonesia’s National Ombudsman was established in the years following the fall of former President Soeharto to promote democratic reform and effective delivery of public services. Its legal basis was strengthened with the passage of Law No. 37 of 2008 on the National Ombudsman. Since it was founded 16 years ago, the Ombudsman has, however, often been dismissed as an ineffectual body – its lack of enforcement authority means that public officials often ignore its recommendations, without consequence. While the Ombudsman has long struggled for funds, its budget has recently been doubled and its nine new members, who were selected in February from a pool of 269 applicants, are seen as competent and committed individuals who are keen to make it a more influential institution. Indonesia at Melbourne spoke to the new chair of the Ombudsman, Amzulian Rifai, during a recent visit to University of Melbourne, where he received a Master of Laws in 1995.

 

What are the main weaknesses in public service delivery in Indonesia? Are problems caused by, for example, weak capacity, corruption, mismanagement, or poor oversight from civil society and the public?
Most of the problems we deal with are caused by corrupt bureaucrats. Corruption can take many forms. Pungutan liar, payment of a fee to get a faster or better service, is corruption, too. Although this form of corruption involves collaboration between the public and corrupt officials, the government must bear the ultimate responsibility. If government delivered a consistent service to all people, regardless of how wealthy they are, then the public would fall into line. Low wages are no excuse for corruption in the civil service. Government officials in Indonesia have a good salary now.

 

The Ombudsman received 6,859 complaints in 2015. How does this compare with previous years?
The number of complaints recorded in 2015 was a slight increase on previous years. But the figure of 6,859 is still not even close to the amount of problems occurring. We are trying to encourage the public to file reports. It is not really part of Indonesian culture to complain. Most Indonesian people just accept what the government gives them. I try to remind the public: “You need to let the government know, that’s why you pay tax”. We should not forget that public service is the main task of the government – it is there to serve the people. The National Ombudsman now has branch offices in 32 provinces, and a 33rd will open in North Kalimantan over the next few months. We expect the number of complaints will be even higher in 2016.

 

What were the main types of complaints received?
Local governments are the target for the most complaints, followed by the police, state owned enterprises (at the national and regional levels), the National Land Agency (BPN), the courts, state education institutions, the banking sector, the prosecutor’s office, state higher education institutions and state-run hospitals.

 

How does the Ombudsman respond to these complaints?
The Ombudsman has the authority to investigate complaints about public services and allegations of maladministration. Its primary function is monitoring public services provided by government ministries, police, state owned enterprises, the military, and the justice sector. It is not responsible for reviewing legislation. The Ombudsman will investigate the complaint reported, and may resolve the problem by clarifying the matter with the relevant minister, or it can mediate a solution between the complainant and the government institution.

 

How does the Ombudsman manage its dealings with the government?
When the Ombudsman identifies a problem with public service, it can make a recommendation to the minister or institution. The government then has 60 days to respond to our recommendations. Of course, there is always the question of what happens if the government decides not to follow these recommendations. As chairman, I am dedicated to following up on our recommendations. If a government official ignores the Ombudsman, our strategy is to go to the media and name and shame them. We can also report to the president and the national legislature (DPR).

 

The Ombudsman now has strong support from the president and the DPR. Reforming the bureaucracy and improving public services is one of President Joko Widodo’s top priorities and we can play an important role in supporting these efforts. Our budget more than doubled in 2015-2016 compared to previous years. This reflects the support we have in the national legislature. We recently met with members of Commission II of the DPR, and they were very supportive of us having a higher budget, so long as we could deliver!

 

The Ombudsman is often dismissed as a toothless institution with only a weak ability to compel government officials and institutions to respond to its recommendations. In 2011, for example, it made three recommendations in relation to the GKI Yasmin Church, which were even taken to the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but were still not followed.
First, I want to say that since I took over as chair, the Ombudsman has reopened all cases that have not been solved, including the Yasmin case. We want to create certainty for the public. We want them to know that complaints to the Ombudsman will be seen through until they are closed. We are planning a press conference in the next month or so to inform the public about what is happening with old cases and letting them know the ministers who have not followed up on our recommendations. I believe that telling the public through the media will have a significant impact on the relevant minister or institution.

 

The reform era has demonstrated the importance of public support for public institutions. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), for example, has been saved on a number of occasions by strong public support. If you can secure the backing of the public, the government or legislature will always be hesitant about cutting your budget. On the other hand, if you lose the trust of the public, then no matter what you do, you will always be wrong. My priority at the moment is working hard and gaining the support of the public.

 

How will naming and shaming work for those institutions that have been highly resistant to reform, such as the police and the prosecutor’s office – both in the top 10 institutions you named?
I understand your concern. But however small our impact on these institutions that are immune to naming and shaming, that is no reason to stop. The police and public prosecutor’s office both have regular turnover of leaders, and different leaders will have different attitudes to reform. These new leaders will also have to face the media and the public and they may have little choice but to follow our recommendations.

 

We’re not going to change the situation overnight, of course, but we shouldn’t give up. We have a strong team for 2016-2021. The nine members have a lot of experience and they work very hard. I believe that at some time in the future, maybe in one or two years, this Ombudsman will be stronger.

 

According to the 2008 Law on the National Ombudsman, officials who fail to comply with the recommendations of the Ombudsman will face administrative sanctions. The 2009 Public Service Law states that these sanctions may range from written warnings to removal from a position. Has this ever happened? What needs to be done to strengthen the Ombudsman’s powers of enforcement?
I don’t think an official has ever lost his or her position for failing to comply with one of our recommendations. The problem is that we are only relying on the commitment of officials. And we all know that commitment is a major weakness among Indonesian bureaucrats. Personally, I believe it is important that the role of the Ombudsman is not limited to providing recommendations. The Ombudsman’s recommendations should be equal in strength to a court decision. Only with that power can we be certain that our recommendations will be heard. On the other hand, the Ombusdman needs to be self-reflective. We can’t have every institution in Indonesia asking for more power. With the authority we have, if we work hard, if we work seriously, and the public supports us, then we can certainly be effective.