A few days ago, Jakarta's new governor, Anies Baswedan, announced that from next year, the two lowest levels of local administrators in the capital – ketua rukun tetangga (neighborhood chief) and ketua rukun warga (hamlet chief) – will no longer need to submit budgetary accountability reports to the provincial government.
Under the previous administration, neighborhood (RT) and hamlet (RW) chiefs were required to compile reports detailing how they spent the "operational funds" they received from the government.
Whatever the reasons behind Anies's decision to dispense with accountability reports, the move will set a bad precedent for the country's efforts to achieve good governance.
"We entrust the allocated operational funds to both neighborhood and hamlet chiefs [to be used accordingly]. If we [the government] do not set an example in trusting them, how could the people do?" the governor told a gathering of neighborhood and hamlet chiefs.
Many of them apparently believe such accountability reports are unnecessary. Abdul Rahman, RW chief 04 of Cempaka Baru in Central Jakarta, for instance said: "The necessity to make such reports has forced us to lie to the government [by making up entries and figures]. That is why we would like to see the practice abolished so that we can go back to the system prevalent during [former] governor Fauzi Wibowo's era."
Notwithstanding Anies's pearl of wisdom, his emphasis on "trust" – while no doubt music to the chiefs' ears – is a betrayal of the democratic principle of public accountability, not to mention checks and balances. Directly elected by residents, RT/RW chiefs should be accountable to the people who chose them; and submitting a report on community expenses to their superiors in government is the least the government can do to ensure good governance, even at the lowest level of administration.
The role of the government here is important, given that the Indonesian culture of nonconfrontation, especially with community elders, makes it rare that residents protest against their local chiefs about the mismanagement of funds.
It is disturbing that the governor should subscribe to the idea that public trust is not something that should be earned and cultivated by leaders. By his reasoning, all elected public officials – presidents, governors, district heads and members of parliament – should also be exempt from making themselves accountable to the people.
Anies's blanket trust seems to arise from the desire not to embarrass his local chiefs by having to justify their expenses. It conveniently coincides with RW chief Abdul Rahman's earnest wish not to have to falsify entries and expenses. Yet if there is nothing untoward about his expenses as RW chief, it should follow that committing them to writing should be no lie at all. It is remotely possible that aware of having incurred dubious expenses, the good chief does not want to add to the list of his undesirable acts by having to cover them up in a report.
More gallingly, the decision to do away with RT/RW accountability has taken place as the Jakarta administration is about to increase its "operational funds" next year. Not only do the taxpayers have to cough up for the increased stipends paid to these local chiefs, they end up with no right whatsoever to demand transparency for the way their funds are used.
I have previously argued that the country's retention of the RT/RW system of local government is anachronistic. Its only saving grace is the educational value of teaching the populace about electing and being elected democratically at the lowest level of government. Thus, if less accountability is to be attached to these inherently superfluous functionaries, the system's educational function also ceases to exist, making it even more redundant.
The posts of neighborhood chiefs in big cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya, East Java, can be lucrative. The RT/RW chiefs in Surabaya, for instance, are now in the habit of asking new residents in their neighborhood to make "community contributions" for as much as millions of rupiahs in middle-class housing estates.
A new shop that opened in the western part of Surabaya last year, for instance, was asked to contribute a total of Rp 5 million ($370) to both RT and RW offices. The rates were higher than that for residents because it was a "business." The shop owner, however, resisted and haggled for a discount. In the end, the chiefs were happy with only Rp 2 million. It was unclear whether the generous knock-down subscription really went into bettering the community or something totally unscrupulous.
The Surabaya local government presently does not require RT and RW chiefs under its auspices to submit accountability reports as its Jakarta counterpart did – at least until this year – preferring to leave it to the vigilance of residents to control their own chiefs. So the truth of where the funds went is hard to discover, which is why the accountability report scheme of Jakarta's previous administration was a promising new practice.
If Governor Anies truly goes ahead and scraps accountability reports for the local chiefs, it stands to reason that more dubious practices at the lowest levels of local government will proliferate on his watch. The irony is that Anies's noble-sounding "trust" system could potentially unleash untrustworthy functionaries unchecked onto the unsuspecting public.
The truth remains that the functions of RT and RW offices could easily be taken over by the kelurahan, or subdistrict office, across the country, which makes the system prone to inefficiencies. Yet no Indonesian administration or home affairs minister has had the foresight to reform it. So the least any responsible and far-thinking governor, district head or mayor could do is to make it more accountable and democratic.
Contrary to this expectation, the incumbent Jakarta administration seems to be going in a different direction. The no-accountability-report regression is exactly that: a setback. Apart from making the governor popular with the local chiefs, it is unlikely to do local government any good in the long term.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos