Wadas Village, A policy commodification?

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Photo: INSTAGRAM@WADAS_MELAWAN

IO – On Tuesday, February 8, 2022, police and military appeared out of nowhere in a tranquil rural town called Wadas Village, Purworejo, Central Java. This announcement caused widespread dismay across the country. Older citizens recall how such a display of force was used to intimidate people under the Suharto New Order regime; it was a time when military intimidation ensured when government policy was disregarded or resisted, and could not be executed as planned. This quickly grew into a national issue, as the Coordinating Minister of Politics, Law, and Human Rights (Menko Polhukam) along with the Office of the President Secretary and Parliament members took charge. 

In a emergency meeting on national policy, attended by Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD, the Military, the Minister of Home Affairs Tito Karnavian, the Minister of Public Works Basuki Hadimulyono, and the Governor of Central Java Ganjar Pranowo, Minister Mahfud MD assured that there was no such perilous confrontation or challenge facing the villagers. Rather it was an effort to survey plots of lands owned by local people who had agreed to sell to andesite rock miners; this material would be used to build the Bener Dam project located some 12 kilometers from the village. The same clarification had been given by the Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo. 

Indeed, both parties, Government and local people, put forth their own arguments. As usual, social media has promulgated the case in a typically lively fashion. There arises the pertinent question: why did the authorities have to deploy so many police officers and army personnel to the location? Wasn’t it enough to send Community Police Officers, Babinkamtibmas to accompany the land surveyors? Why must there be a display of military show of force? 

The Poverty of Policy Implementation 

Jokowi’s national strategic Bener Dam project is for the good of the people. That was the initial premise. Mixing up policy and military muscle in a tawdry spectacle was a lesson in poor implementation of a good policy. In my experience, policy execution accounts for up to 60% of a policy’s success. The issue is that in underdeveloped nations like Indonesia, policy implementation is typically done administratively and in an elitist manner. This stems from the fiction (rather than a belief) that public policy and law are the same thing. Although public policy is a political choice made by those in positions of power, the process and implementation of it must involve the the people. Gotong royong is a principle of “working together to achieve a common goal” from planning, formulating, implementing to controlling. Thus the people are encouraged to take responsibility, and not be passive onlookers. 

It was reported that the Government, with the support of the central Java governor, conducted a series of meetings with the local people; the conclusion was that some of the inhabitants were will ing to sell their land, while others declined. The plan was to mine andesite rock from a 64-hectare area of the Wadas Village. The plot of land to be acquired would include seven hamlets (dukuh), covering an area of 114 hectares. The Wadas Village residents who refused to sell were reportedly worried that excavation of rock in their village would damage the water table and potentially endanger rice cultivation, as most of their livelihood derived from farming. In fact, it was made clear that no final decision had been made, or any public process completed. The show of force by police officers and soldiers, implying they were facing off with a group of terrorists, has reinforced the image of a poverty of policy implementation by those in the administration. 

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Best Practices 

Successful performance of policy implementation necessitates a sound understanding and should translate into “best practices”. Two approaches for implementation were considered: top-to-bottom and bottom-upward. Key success criteria for the former implementation would imply policy goals clear and consistent (Van Meter and Van Horn, “The Policy Implementation Process: A Conceptual Frame-work”, 1975). Bottom-up success criteria include the understanding that there are always two levels of implementation: a macro implementation level, centrally located actors devising a government program; at a micro implementation level, local organizations react to macro level plans, develop their own programs and implement them (Berman, “The Study of Macro- and Micro- Implementation,” 1978). 

The agenda adopted was to combine the a top-to-bottom with a bottom-up. Consistency and clarity would characterize policy goals in building the dam, and material would be supplied from Wadas. While the dam project itself could be an excellent execution, the material off-take has to be clear and consistent in terms of project procurement, facing the issue of sustainability of a water supply for local farmers. 

The bottom-upper is already managed. Local government has been involved from the initial stage. This implies that implementation was accomplished at a micro level. For instance, in a press briefing, the Governor explained that the issue at hand was that some of the villagers agreed to sell land containing andesite rock, while others refused. Payments were in progress: by November 2021, 57.17% of the 1,167 hectares were transferred, with IDR 689 billion in payments disbursed. And is still going on. There was however an ongoing dispute between the villagers and the project owner. Thus local government officials and the local human rights commission facilitated a dialog, and it was held properly. 

So, how did it turn out? Most policy implementation tends to overlook policy communication (George C. Edward III, Implementing Public Policy, 1980). There are two problems. First, policy implementation in Indonesia relies more on policy socialization than policy communication. In fact, socialization merely “informing the public”; it does not include assuring the public is in agreement, with the same understanding, as the main task of communication – sharing the same meaning. Secondly, the top-bottom theory of policy communication, as Edward details, refers to the way policy communication is more about how a senior leader in administration communicates with the “bureaucrat on the street” as the implementer. There is neither sufficient space for communicating to the public, nor opening up a public dialogue as part of the policy dynamics. 

What needs to be communicated is the meaningful benefit of the Bener Dam for the surrounding community – including Wadas Villagers. It is understood that public policy implies a government decision, always for the public interest, compared to a private project seeking personal or group interest and gain. Environmental issues or land usage needs to be explained as well, assuring all that quarrying of the andesite would not degrade the water sources. There would of course also be provision of water from the Bener Dam. There needs to be policy communication, as a first and enduring step, in implementation, carried out by central government, local government and the executioner of the project. 

Dr Riant Nugroho
Dr Riant Nugroho is a public policy specialist. He is also chairman of the Indonesian Public Policy Society (MAKPI), director of Rumah Reformasi Kebijakan, secretary of the Indonesian Defense Studies Community, as well as lecturer at Public Administration Faculty and postgraduate program of Jenderal Achmad Yani University (UNJANI), Faculty of Administrative Science of the University of Indonesia, Social and Economic Research Institution at the University of Indonesia’s Economy and Business School (LPEM FEB UI), leadership course at the Indonesian Armed Forces Staff and Command School and the National Resilience Institute (Lemhannas), as well as senior visiting lecturer at University Malaya (Malaysia) and Sunkyunkwan University (South Korea), Visiting Professor at UESTC (China). He has authored several books on public policy and foreign policy.

What to Do 

A strong government, such as the current one, sometimes falls victim to excessive self-confidence in its policy action. It may suffer from a deficit of humility and wisdom as to how to manage policies smoothly and efficiently. The performance of the Coordinating Minister Mahfud MD and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranomo were precise, but somehow seemed insufficient. So, what to do? 

Firstly, Government needs to understand that public policy is the sort of effort that demands public engagement at every level it touches. Therefore, what needs to be done is not a socialization of law, but rather policy communication. This means people understand what is happening and thus take part in the policy as their own. In a Javanese proverb “melu handarbeni”, meaning having a sense of belonging. Such an effort would not take long, given that there is an accountable person to carry it out professionally as well as credibly. 

Second, to re-evaluate the formulated project as a policy derivative, commencing with a technical plan, materials, procurement and execution strategy. A small independent unit of policy professionals would conduct an evaluation and deliver a verdict: “just go”, “go but”, “do not go” or to terminate. This needs to be considered as the policy has spores swirling from policy problems to political concerns. Tasks include ways to “scrutinize” the potential of KKN (collusion, corruption, and nepotism) in the project, particularly in procurement. Everyone knows that in every problematic and poorly-executed policy implementation, there lurks a possibility of KKN. 

Thirdly, if the decision is “go” or “go but”, the project needs to have an accountable and professional to take charge of policy communication with the public – the people being considered part of the policy. He/she could be a government officer at a national of local level or a dedicated professional communicator, who is also familiar with public policy, to make it happen. 

Fourth, execute implementation as a “public party”; in a manner that everybody is happy to accept the policy. Policy implementation thus becomes policy celebration. I suggest this was the President’s vision. People are engaged in every government decision; they feel the decision belongs to them. 

Fifth, taken as a lesson learned that public policy is not about authoritative decision-making alone; it is more about government honor and credibility. It must be well-managed, from planning to formulation, then implementation and control. Policy implementation shall be carried out wisely as well as efficiently and effectively. 

The Other Side of the Issue 

There is nevertheless speculation regarding this issue. The failure of Governor Ganjar Pranowo in properly managing policy implementation is at stake. If the Governor merely goes along with what seems to be a solely an authoritarian government decision, he might lose popularity and support for the 2024 presidential election. Another 2024 candidate might take advantage of the situation. On the contrary, if he is strongly backed up the people of Wadas, he might enjoy even more popularity, while losing political, governmental or even administrative power. It calls for an extremely wise decision by the Governor. 

Indeed, there is a signal for a certain political party not to politicize a strategic national project, simply for the benefit of a political adversary. The involvement of military officers on site generated more speculation that there is a serious effort to “sell the issue” as a “political commodity” – a kind of policy commodification. 

The conclusion is that the issue of Wadas Village needs to be solved as fast as possible. Professionally, it is a kind of test for the quality of Government’s credibility, capability, and accountability to the public, in the effort to manage public policy wisely. As for the issue itself, in my opinion it is not hard to resolve. There is no ambiguity involved, as many have suspected. 

Politics: that is the one that matters. The essence of the issue is that Wadas is a kind of policy commodification. It might be assumed that those who try to drag it out or blow it up are easily to be taken in account, as they who would like to reap a political profit from the case. The advice is that the idea of selling the policy as a commodity needs to end now, as it is the people who would suffer. Waduk Bener project has been waiting to be developed and completed for the good of the people. Wadas villagers need to continue its activity and productivity, without any worry or suspicion.