Responding to the COVID-19 crisis in Indonesia

Why Adaptive Management is more important than ever. Lessons from an Indonesian Governance program.

Maliki, Graham Teskey, Anna Winoto, and Michael Woolcock.

In recent years, the term ‘adaptive management’ has lost some of its gravitas. As can often happen in the development sector, terminology can come in and out of fashion. However, adaptive management in practice is more important than ever. This became evident when reviewing insights from the Indonesian program KOMPAK[1]. Adaptive management was critical to our ability to achieve outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adaptive management addresses complexity in program and policy environments. It recognises that, in complex settings, an overall program goal may be clear but the pathway to achieving it often is not fixed because it has not been tested, because it is contingent upon context.

This was certainly the case for KOMPAK, an Australian-Indonesian government program focussed on improving basic services and economic opportunities, especially for poor and vulnerable Indonesians. At its heart, it was a governance program – designed to strengthen core systems and processes to improve public services programs such as health, education, and civil registration in a decentralised context.

In a country of over 17,500 islands and 75,000 villages, ‘delivering development’ effectively, efficiently, and equitably is a huge challenge. Indonesia is geographically, ethnically, and culturally diverse. What works in Aceh may not work in Papua or Kalimantan.

Local contextual knowledge is therefore key. Historically Indonesia has been centralised and it’s only in the last 20 years that meaningful decentralisation policies have been enacted with financial allocations directly to each village. This demands improved levels of financial disbursements, reporting, recording, and accounting. It also requires – and presupposes – an engaged citizenry.

This was a challenging agenda, and then the COVID pandemic hit. COVID tested the resilience, flexibility, and adaptive capacity of governments the world over, stretching health systems and social protection programs to extremes. In Indonesia, the government named COVID the first public health disaster in its history. As of early February 2023, the country has registered over 6.7 million positive cases and 160,000 deaths.[2]

When COVID-19 struck, all parts of the Indonesian Government and their development partners had to revise their plans and budgets. This was nothing new for KOMPAK. Long before COVID, KOMPAK had adopted a strategy of monitoring, learning, reflecting, and adapting. We believe KOMPAK can share important lessons for government and donors who would like to ‘adapt’ to changes in the operating environment and foster innovation.

At KOMPAK we were accustomed to undertaking reviews every six months to reflect on progress and adjust workplans and activities. Sometimes we would increase budgets, at others we would cut them. We considered whether or not to drop activities and introduce new ones, based on the ‘real time’ data we were collecting. While interventions addressed common issues, different locations made different adjustments and adopted different pilots. We then figured out what worked and where it worked, trying to figure out why, and using this information across the program.

At the outset of COVID-19, we used a similar approach and revisited planned 2020 activities against three criteria: relevance, priority, and alignment to decide whether to continue with no change, continue with revision, postpone, or drop activities or add new ones. The result: over 71% continued with some revision, 9% continued without change, 4% dropped, and 1% postponed. New activities amounted to 13% of the revised portfolio.

During the pandemic, the governance models that we had worked so hard to put into place for KOMPAK became invaluable to generate practical solutions for the Indonesian Government.

The government was grappling with many issues. Villages needed guidance in revising their cash transfers and budgets. Communities needed credible data and viable means to ensure that COVID-programs and resources targeted those in greatest need. The KOMPAK models were used to address these issues. For example, prior to COVID-19 we had been piloting a system to make data available at the village-level to support: administration and civil registration services; evidence-based planning and budgeting; reports to subdistrict and districts; and verification of poverty data.

By 2021, the pilot had covered 339 villages in 23 districts in seven provinces, but with different flavours in different jurisdictions. In Papua and Papua Barat, which lack basic data, the model mobilised and trained youth cadres to conduct house-to-house data collection. In Lombok Timur district in West Nusa Tenggara, the local government used the civil registry data system to generate core data for the system. In Bondowoso district in East Java, the pilot demonstrated a mechanism for using the system to update the poverty database. This enabled villages to identify eligible households who had been previously missed by the system and register them to receive support.

The accuracy of population data became pressing during the pandemic to ensure the government could identify those most in need of assistance. But the Indonesian Government was grappling with an outdated national poverty database. And the pandemic affected not only poor households but also those that had suffered recent job losses or other COVID-related vulnerabilities. Data gaps threatened the effectiveness of the program and the credibility of the government’s pandemic response.

The National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS), Ministry of Villages, and local governments looked to KOMPAK for solutions to channel Village Funds cash transfers to households most affected by COVID-19. The Indonesian Government needed an updated list of beneficiaries that fulfilled eligibility criteria and that communities endorsed. Transparency was critical to minimize social unrest. And the government had to do it for all 75,000 villages in the country.

KOMPAK’s pilot provided answers. We identified appropriate business processes for village governments to update and validate poverty lists using their own VIS. With a functioning VIS, village and local governments could collect and update data on eligible beneficiaries, including people already in social assistance programs, living in poverty, or suffering a recent job loss. The data even included female-headed households, persons with disabilities, and the elderly.

KOMPAK advocated that Village Taskforces verify beneficiary lists and that village consultative assemblies endorse them. KOMPAK also identified the enabling factors and authorising environment needed for the information system to function at scale—for all villages in a district. We then worked with BAPPENAS and the Ministry of Villages to convert the lessons into national guidelines.

BAPPENAS is now leading a new initiative to develop a national Socio-Economic Registry (Registrasi Sosial Ekonomi or Regsosek) that adopts and builds on KOMPAK’s information system pilot. The policy promotes linkage among the system, the poverty database, and the civil registration system to improve the accuracy and efficiency of social protection programs. Through the Regsosek initiative, the iteration and adaptation cycle of KOMPAK’s work continues but now on a larger scale. And the government is leading the reform.

Cumulatively, these governance innovations and adaptive management practices put Indonesia in a far better position to handle the next big stress to its public service delivery systems. KOMPAK’s adaptive management practices allowed the program to adapt, innovate and ultimately support the Government of Indonesia to assist its most vulnerable citizens.

So, while the term ‘adaptive management’ may still feel like jargon to some, for those of us involved in the KOMPAK program, we can attest that the approach was instrumental for us to deliver much needed outcomes in Indonesia during the pandemic.

[1] KOMPAK was funded by the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

[2] The latest figures are available at:

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