At Your Service: Indonesia’s Government Agencies Look to Digital Innovations Amid COVID-19

COVID-19 has increased digital access to public services in Indonesia. Photo: ADB
COVID-19 has increased digital access to public services in Indonesia. Photo: ADB

By Kate Walton, Hanif Rahemtulla

At the local level, public services have gone digital in Indonesia as the pandemic forces government offices to restrict access to them.

The use of digital technologies and the internet in public service provision has experienced significant growth in Indonesia in recent years. This trend has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with face-to-face services forced to close or dramatically cut their hours and visitor numbers in order to reduce the spread of the virus.

Local governments, below the national level, are responsible for the vast majority of service delivery in Indonesia. Subsequently, both the quality of services and their use of digital tools and technologies varies significantly from one region to another. Areas with higher human development index rankings have generally led digitization efforts, but rural and less developed districts are by no means left behind.

One look at Banyuwangi District’s Smart Kampung program in East Java confirms this. The district has been using e-budgeting and digital databases since 2016 to improve the quality and accuracy of public services. During COVID-19, Banyuwangi used existing databases to confirm which residents should receive social welfare assistance.

Many government offices across Indonesia have introduced online services in the past five years. Leading the shift are agencies responsible for business licensing and civil registration services providing documents such as national identity cards. These anticipatory efforts have significantly streamlined application processes through reducing the number of documents and visits required.

Online services have also dramatically reduced the opportunities for bribes. Such efforts have been widely adopted throughout the country as agencies learn from one another and even compete to win public service awards.

Public services that have seen the best success in shifting online during COVID-19 are ones that adapt to or incorporate users’ behavior. The Population and Civil Registration Office of Maros, South Sulawesi, for example, now allows service users to print citizenship documents at home after registering through a smartphone app. Alternatively, users can ask that their documents be delivered to their house by ojek (motorbike taxi), as long as they can show proof of identity.

Libraries across Indonesia have also taken the opportunity to innovate. The Makassar City Library Agency, for example, shifted its mobile children’s storytelling activities online – they now broadcast weekly live storytelling sessions on their Instagram and YouTube channels.

COVID-19 has forced Indonesia’s local governments to quickly adopt digital methods of providing public services.

Incorporating new services into existing digital technology has also proven worthwhile in Indonesia. Instead of creating a new smartphone app for telehealth services, for example, Indonesia’s national healthcare and social insurance agency BPJS Kesehatan added telehealth consultations to its Mobile JKN app in April 2020. The app now connects patients directly with health workers.

Many community health centers have expanded their messaging services to include WhatsApp chat groups for high-risk pregnant women and post-partum mothers to ensure regular communication with patients. These initiatives ensure non-coronavirus health issues are not forgotten.

While reactive rather than anticipatory, many efforts to digitize public services in Indonesia should be acknowledged for their impressive speed and reach. These quick shifts indicate that local governments can indeed be innovative when pushed. Submissions to the 2020 ADB-AIM Hackathon and a recent competition held by TRANSFORMASI (GIZ) and the Indonesian Ministry of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform (KemenPAN RB) have demonstrated this.

The KemenPAN RB competition alone received over 1,200 entries from across Indonesia. In order to encourage adoption of good practices, all entries are on display in a public database called JIPPNAS (National Network for Public Service Innovation), itself a national-level replication of previous TRANSFORMASI-supported local Public Service Innovation Hubs.

Another key to successfully bringing public services online is the recognition of limitations. Many agencies have acknowledged that some users cannot access digital services, especially users from lower socio-economic backgrounds and in areas underserved by telecommunications. In education, for example, schools have been shut in Indonesia since March 2020. Teachers are using a wide array of video conferencing platforms and collaborative work platforms, often supported by low-tech solutions such as WhatsApp chat groups and voice messages.

But this does not work for all, meaning that the recognition of the challenges facing users is vital, as is taking that knowledge and putting users at the center of responses. Subsequently, many local governments in Indonesia have developed offline activities to support the continuation of services.

The District Education Office of Bandung Barat in West Java is one such example: after surveying teachers and students, they found that 90% of schools reported problems implementing distance education, with 67% saying that at least some students did not have smartphones and 22% had internet access problems.

With face-to-face education unlikely to resume until late 2020, Bandung Barat introduced four models of learning: online (video conferencing and digital materials), offline (printed modules and worksheets, and television and radio broadcasts), combination, and home visits (teachers visit students individually or in small groups). This user-centered design has proven effective in ensuring that even students in mountainous farming villages can continue their education during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has forced Indonesia’s local governments to quickly adopt digital methods of providing public services. Some agencies and service providers have shifted quickly and successfully, while others are still experimenting to discover what works best for their users. With the pandemic still ongoing and the number of cases in Indonesia predicted to continue rising into 2021, digital service provision will need to remain a key focus area in order to keep vital services flowing while reducing the spread of the virus as much as possible.