Exclusive Interview: Governor of Jakarta

By Joshua Chambers Medha Basu

Shock therapy in Indonesia’s Capital City.

“If they are too rich, too corrupt and too lazy - we just fire them,” the Governor of Jakarta says. His views on management are simple: sack bad employees, recruit better ones, track them with data and pay them more.

Basuki Purnama Tjahaja - dubbed Ahok - has drawn mixed reactions with this blunt approach. “Not everybody likes me,” he admits. Certainly government officials have been surprised by his tough approach - just this week, North Jakarta’s Mayor resigned after his boss openly criticised him.

But polls show overwhelming popularity amongst ordinary citizens. This matters for a ‘double minority’ - a Chinese Christian politician whose staff acknowledge has an uphill climb to win the 2017 election.

As he gears up to run for another term in office, Ahok sat down exclusively with GovInsider to discuss his views on public services, and set out his unfinished business.

Shock therapy

When Ahok took the reigns in 2014, he believed that government was too slow, expensive and corrupt.

His solution was to sack great swathes of the government. The civil service went from 8,000 to 4,000 officials in his first two months, and “by 2 January 2015, we actually cut 50% of government officials in structural posts”, he says.

These savings were spent on higher salaries for the remaining officials, along with bonuses for good performance. Salaries were too low to motivate good employees, he believes, but now they are more reasonable. “If you are not good, we fire you as a bureaucrat. But if you want to work hard, you [can] keep going.”

The Governor also took on government’s contractors. The city had outsourced cleaning but the streets were littered and sewage ran through the streets - despite thousands of employees being paid to keep Jakarta clean. Some companies were putting fake workers on their payroll to claim higher fees, while others were simply not turning up for work.

So Jakarta has taken back control of these services. The city formed its own team - the “orange troop” - which tackles maintenance, such as cleaning rivers, filling potholes and fixing streetlamps. Their pay comes directly from the government and is deposited straight to their bank account - ensuring that they are all genuine employees. They are also tracked throughout the day using GPS, meaning they must turn up.

In data he trusts

Ahok showing performance app

Ahok believes that data is crucial for improving government performance. The Governor has commissioned an app that all officials must install on their phones, reporting their location back to City Hall. This ensures prompt arrivals in the morning.

He has even started monitoring officials’ performance in real-time, using a special app that is installed on his smartphone. A dashboard ranks all of his 267 subdistrict heads based on how quickly they respond to citizens’ complaints, and we flick through the results together.

If an official is constantly at the bottom of the table, they are called up by the Governor to explain themself. “We will fire him if he cannot answer what happened”. Promotions will also go to the top performing officials, he says. “[If] he is always at the top, that means this guy I could promote to become district head”.

Making changes transparent

Ahok does not track officials on his own: he encourages the population to join in. All meetings are recorded and posted online, including this interview. From the moment Ahok burst into the room declaring “let’s talk,” his cameraman has been filming.

He also wants citizens to monitor officials’ spending patterns. This is because local council members were submitting fraudulent projects, which had not been approved by government. There were no reliable records to prove this was corruption, so the money was still being paid out.

Ahok introduced a digital system that tracks every budgetary change. The entire process of planning and allocating budgets is done digitally, and only authorised officials can make changes. “Our strategy is very clear. If you want to eradicate corruption, the first rule is to make everything transparent,” the Governor says.
“If you want to eradicate corruption, the first rule is to make everything transparent.”
He has just launched a Smart City Unit which is charged with using tech to improve transparency. Their first project was building an interactive map that plots data including live citizen complaints, all traffic jams, bus routes and CCTV feeds. All citizens can view this online, tracking the performance of government and noting when problems arise.

The team is also charged with monitoring citizens’ sentiment. In a high-tech HQ that resembles the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise, officials gather to look through statistics on officials’ performance, traffic management, crime figures and more. “I want to know what the people want and what the failures are,” he says.

The team’s next project is a website bringing all public services together in one place. The team will also build an API - application programming interface - which will allow citizens to build new services and apps that will integrate with the portal. This will mean more competition in the private sector to deliver the best digital services to Jakartans.

Jakarta smart city

New tricks

Ahok has hired a new team of 80 people to improve how government uses technology. “I want people who are smarter, more creative and have more new ideas than me,” he says.
“I want people who are smarter, more creative and have more new ideas than me.”
Predominantly, this means young recruits, rather than mid-career professionals, he says.Mid-career recruits are set in their ways and cannot come up with good ideas, he believes, adding: “If you don’t have new ideas, don’t talk to me. I don’t have time to hear the same ideas again.”

Jakarta attracts young high-fliers with “a very good salary”, private sector-style contracts and a chance to do good for their country. He is also hiring interns from top global universities. They bring new experience into government, and work directly with him in his office, shadowing his meetings and advise on policy decisions.

Tech underpins plans

As Ahok looks ahead, his vision “is to make the people’s brains, stomachs and wallets full,” he says.

On education, Jakarta is giving out scholarships for students to get degrees. For every year they attend a public university, the government gives IDR 18 million (US$1,363), he says.

The Governor is also using smart cards to track these subsidies. Education is one of the biggest expenses for Jakarta, with an overall budget of IDR 1.06 trillion (US$80 million), and it needs to kept under tight control.

Previously, young people would be pressured into giving up their cash subsidies to their families, rather than spending it on books and teaching. Now, they have cards that are linked to their identity numbers, and cannot be claimed in cash.

A second priority is health care. The government is adding more hospital beds and wants to improve quality of care. The city added 1,958 beds in 2015, and the Governor wants to provide more tertiary care for complex diseases like cancer and heart ailments. “Our hospital, I guarantee, is better than the private hospital,” he says.

Third is housing. He has moved out 20,000 families living in slums along river banks and moved them to subsidised housing. They pay a daily service charge starting from IDR 5,000 (less than 50 US cents) for the apartment and use public transport for free.


Jakarta can move ahead faster by learning from leaders. Europe and America are too far ahead for Jakarta to mimic, he believes. Instead, Ahok is looking to Asian cities - Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul - for best practices which he can directly implement in Jakarta. “If they use the latest technology, I can just follow them. This will mean a leapfrog for me,” he says.
“If they use the latest technology, I can just follow them."
Jakarta will also look back to its pastoral roots, though. A massive number of parks are opening across the city - 63 have been built, with another 150 to come. These will be monitored by the Smart City Unit via CCTV cameras to ensure that they are safe for children and the elderly.

“I must go,” Ahok says, rising from his chair and heading out to meet with citizens and get their ideas for the budget. He is blunt and bloody-minded in pushing changes through the system. The same is true when interviews are over.

His government is best seen as a dynamo machine. The Governor of Jakarta is in the centre as a whirling powerhouse - creating energy, demanding action, and sending shock waves throughout his entire administration.