Indonesia Direct Democracy Experiment
- General Issues
- Governance & Political Institutions
- Specific Topics
- Public Participation
- Scope of Influence
- Start Date
- End Date
- Time Limited or Repeated?
- A single, defined period of time
- Spectrum of Public Participation
- Not applicable or not relevant
- Open to All or Limited to Some?
- Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
- General Types of Tools/Techniques
- Facilitate decision-making
- Collect, analyse and/or solicit feedback
- Specific Methods, Tools & Techniques
- Community-Based Participatory Research
- Direct Democracy
- Representative Town Meeting
- Facilitator Training
- Untrained, Nonprofessional Facilitators
- Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
- Types of Interaction Among Participants
- Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
- Negotiation & Bargaining
- Express Opinions/Preferences Only
- Decision Methods
- If Voting
- Preferential Voting
- Majoritarian Voting
- Communication of Insights & Outcomes
- Public Hearings/Meetings
- Type of Organizer/Manager
- Type of Funder
- Academic Institution
- Evidence of Impact
- Types of Change
- Changes in people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behavior
- Changes in how institutions operate
- Implementers of Change
- Lay Public
- Formal Evaluation
Participatory field research using randomized selection to examine the difference in decision-making and legitimacy between two methods of decision-making: the traditional town meeting and plebiscite (direct voting).
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Purpose and Problem
The purpose of the Indonesia Direct Democracy Experiment was to discover and assess the virtues of direct democracy. Stemming from the Kecamatan Development Project, the experiment aimed to discover and explore the concept that direct participation in decision-making can lead to increased satisfaction and legitimacy in a community. The creator of the experiment, Benjamin Olken, a professor of economics at MIT, was driven by the notion that perhaps if communities feel involved in the political process, they will be more content and invested in their government. Based on the findings Olken describes, societies that feel more directly involved in political processes will ultimately be more satisfied as a whole.
Background History and Context
Indonesia was seen as a prime candidate for this sort of experiment because of its political past. The nation was recovering from the effects of the authoritarian Suharto regime after its 31-year rule. In 1998, the country looked to find ways that their government could be successfully decentralized. A desire to search for alternatives led to the creation of the Kecamatan Development Project in 1998 funded by the World Bank. Essentially, the project funded projects in thousands of Indonesian villages. The villages chosen were ones that were believed to represent various conditions in rural Indonesia. Each village was given the opportunity to propose small-scale infrastructure projects in efforts to promote independent decision-making. The previous regime that existed in the country was a consultative assembly making the KDP project vastly dissimilar from what the population was accustomed to. Olken’s direct democracy experiment stemmed from the existence of the KDP. The experiment was built to examine the way in which these projects would be chosen within the participating villages.
The study took place in 49 Indonesian villages from three subdistricts located in different parts of rural Indonesia to represent the wide variety of conditions in the country. One subdistrict was in East Java, a heavily Muslim area that is one of the most densely populated areas rural areas in the world. A second subdistrict was in North Sumatra, an area with much smaller villages and a large Christian population. A third subdistrict was in Southeast Sulawesi, in a poorer, more remote area with substantial ethnic heterogeneity, even within villages.
The Participatory Proposal Process
All of the villages in this study participate in the Kecamatan (Subdistrict) Development Project (KDp), a national Indonesian government program, funded through a loan from the World Bank. KDP began in 1998, and at the time of the study, had financed projects in approximately 15,000 villages throughout Indonesia each year.
In KDP, participating subdistricts, which typically contain between 10 and 20 villages, receive an annual block grant for three consecutive years. Every year, each village in the subdistrict makes two proposals for small-scale infrastructure activities. The village as a whole proposes one of the projects and women’s groups in the village propose the second. Once the village proposals have been made, an inter-village forum, consisting of six representatives from each village, ranks all of the proposals according to a number of criteria and projects are funded according to the rank list until all funds have been exhausted; typically, about 40% of villages have at least one project funded each year.
It is important to note that while the KDP village meetings in some ways resemble the regular village parliament, the BPD, they are formally separate from BPD, and the hamlet representatives who vote at KDP village meetings are selected directly for that purpose at the hamlet level KDP meetings. The reason for this separation is historical: the KDP program was designed between 1996 and 1998 in the context of the Soeharto regime, and the program designers sought to create a decision making institution that was more independent than the village-head appointed Village Consultative Assembly (LMD) that existed at the time.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The study took place in three KDP subdistricts, one each on the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, which were chosen from among the KDP subdistricts by the lead researcher to represent the wide variety of conditions in rural Indonesia. Within each of the three target subdistricts, villages were randomly sampled. In particular, government officials (e.g., the village head, village secretary, and other members of the village executive), neighborhood heads, and those selected to represent village groups compose the majority of attendees. A typical meeting would have between 9-15 people representing the various hamlets, as well as various formal and informal village leaders, with on average about 48 people attending in total out of an average village population of 2,200. In the general meeting, the representatives are usually (but not always) men, whereas in the women’s meeting, all representatives are women. At each meeting, the representatives in attendance discuss the proposals, with substantial help from an external facilitator deciding ultimately on a single proposal from each meeting.
Methods and Tools Use
Between September of 2005 and January of 2006 Olken began an participatory research experiment in which the decision-making mechanism used to choose the KDP project was changed. Protocol dictated by the KDP suggested that projects proposed by each village, should be chosen based on a meeting-based process. Villages were randomly chosen from the three existing rural sub districts of East Java, North Sumatra and Southeast Sulawesi. The villages selected would choose projects based on direct election-based plebiscites. Simply put, Olken believed that a more participatory process would eliminate the potential elite bias that could exist in village meetings. Village participation was based on two different phases of the experiment. The first phase was based on 10 villages in East Java Province and 19 villages in North Sumatra Province. After data from phase one was received, protocol was changed and then applied to 20 more villages in Sulawesi Province for phase two of the experiment. Within phase one, 25 percent of villages used plebiscites versus 45 percent in phase two. Both phases included villages chosen based on a wide range of variables including, but not limited to population, ethnic fragmentation, and characteristics of the villages legislative and executive branches.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
In order to understand the changes in deliberation and decision making that the experiment employed, it is important to look at the KDP process as a whole. A three-step process existed in KDP to choose relevant projects:
1. Agenda setting
All Indonesian villages are comprised of between 2 and 7 dusun, or hamlets. For a period of several months, a village facilitator organizes small meetings at the hamlet level; for large hamlets multiple meetings might be held in different neighborhoods within each hamlet. These meetings aim to create a list of ideas for what projects the village should propose.
2. Proposal creation
These ideas are then divided into two groups – those that originated from women’s only meetings and those suggested by mixed meetings or men’s meetings. The village facilitator presents the women’s list to a women-only village meeting and the men’s and joint ideas to a village meeting open to both genders. While these meetings are open to the public, those that attend represent a highly selected sample.
3. Funding Decisions
Once the village proposals have been made, an inter-village forum, consisting of six representatives from each village, ranks all of the proposals according to a number of criteria, such as the number of beneficiaries and the project’s cost, and projects are funded according to the rank list until all funds have been exhausted; typically, about 40% of villages have at least one project funded each year.
Olken’s experiment changed only the second of the three-step process by replacing meeting-based mechanisms with plebiscite-based mechanisms. Using a meeting-based mechanism implies the existence of community leaders and elites guiding said meetings and shaping the proposals created. In contrast, a plebiscite-based mechanism would not allow any individuals to guide the proposal process as each villager had their own vote based on a list of priorities they were given. Essentially, Olken changed the mechanism used in the second step to see how direct participation might impact the projects chosen by the villages as a whole. This change made in the second step would as a result, affect the priorities stated in the first step and the decisions made in the third step. The experiment considers the possibility that villagers participating in plebiscites may choose proposals strategically based on which ones they think have the best chance of obtaining funding the third step. Olken states that because elites will be pushing for funding in the third step, villagers could choose projects in line with elite beliefs to ensure that their proposals will be properly argued for. In both types of villages, identical agenda-setting processes were used therefore standardizing the list of potential projects that each type of village would consider and weigh. By maintaining a level of consistency in the first step, Olken eliminates the potential for skewed data; plebiscites and meeting-based villages would be given the same data to work off of.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The results of Olken’s experiment were two-fold. First, and most importantly, the data showed that plebiscites had no impact on the general types of projects selected by the participating villages. On a more specific level, the projects chosen that impacted women were ones that reflected the views of village elites rather than the general population. Plebiscites seemed to favor the preferences of the average voters when it came to general issues but less so when it came to women’s specific concerns. Direct participation affected the location in which projects would take place as well; because voting was based on numbers rather than representatives, projects were less likely to be approved for isolated areas of the village thus favoring the most populated hamlets. The second point to look at is the level of satisfaction and support that resulted from plebiscite-based mechanisms in the second step. Results of the experiment showed that plebiscite process resulted in a much higher level of satisfaction among villagers across the board. Citizens in the plebiscite villages claimed that the projects chosen were in line with their needs and were necessary to their well being. Statistically, the evidence of a change is shown by a 13 percent increase in the satisfaction that people felt towards KDP overall.
The main point to take away from Olken’s findings is that the process by which political decisions are made really does matter. Results of the experiment showed that clearly plebiscites have little to no impact on the types of projects chosen by the villages. This piece of data proves that the general population is just as capable of reflecting the views of the community, as representatives would be. The real impact is shown in the level of satisfaction and participation that plebiscites instigate in villages. According to Olken, the existence of plebiscites led to an increase in voter participation and knowledge on the projects they were deciding upon. There was a 20 percent increase in villages where plebiscites decided upon the projects. Similarly, results showed a rise in villager satisfaction with decisions made that mirrored the rise in participation. Clearly, the ability to participate in the political process arguably leads to higher levels of approval among citizens of a nation.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
It is indisputable that among the villages included in Olken’s experiment, direct democracy had positive impacts on legitimacy and satisfaction. In terms of the projects chosen, plebiscites did not affect how each village made their choices for the general issues. In addition, projects chosen that directly impacted women were more in line with elite preferences even though the plebiscite process did not favor elite opinions. The result in higher rates of satisfaction show that direct democracy can be successful in increasing political legitimacy without changing the priorities of a government. While in theory this is a positive impact, in practice it could also prevent the distribution of wealth in a developing country. This is because according to Olken, changing the process does not change the outcomes. Furthermore, by eliminating representative voting, decisions would reflect the views of larger villages and exclude more isolated villages. Therefore, while participation may increase as well as satisfaction, the concept of plebiscite voting does not necessarily have a positive impact on all villages. On another level, the experiment showed that plebiscites led to voters feeling compelled to learn about the type and location of the projects chosen for their villages. Data showed that when plebiscites were used, respondents were 18 percent more likely to be aware of the KDP proposals that applied to them. This information proves that greater political participation leads directly to a more knowledgeable and content population.
There have been many common arguments made against the experiment done in Indonesia. Most notably, one must take into consideration the long-term impacts of plebiscite voting. While in the short-term results have shown a greater sense of satisfaction, one is unable to foresee the impacts of these decisions in the future and whether or not the level of satisfaction will remain high. In addition, it is important to realize that the issues being voted on vary depending on location. Context is then very critical in judging the appropriateness of direct democracy as plebiscites could significantly help or hurt subgroups in a given area. Finally, Olken explains that it is quite possible that because the experiment was a one-time study, its participants could have made more fair decisions in efforts to appear reasonable. This sort of experiment would need to be put into practice in several different areas for an extended period of time in order to defend its findings.
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Olken, Benjamin A. "Direct Democracy and Local Public Goods: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia." American Political Science Review 104.2 (2010): 243-67. MIT and National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2010. Web.
http://www.cpn.org/tools/dictionary/deliberate.html [BROKEN LINK]
The first submission of this case entry was summarized from the original study by Benjamin Olken.