Why we need to send more government officials to study abroad

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With fellow government officials from India, Turkey, and South Korea.

Studying abroad is a privilege—not only it is difficult financially but it’s also difficult application-wise. Having attended one of the most prestigious graduate schools in the US after pursuing a career in the government, our contributor Ardhi makes a case for why we should send more government officials abroad.

In his annual state of the nation address on Friday, August 16th, President Jokowi highlighted his vision to develop the nation’s human capital. This vision is very important and urgent.  If we look at the PISA Ranking, in 2015 Indonesia was behind some neighboring countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore. Based on the Human Development Index, Indonesia has a score of 0.53. Compared to the other lower-middle-income countries, Indonesia is slightly higher. However, if we compare it with the upper-middle-income countries, Indonesia is among the lowest. There is also a problem with the higher education system. There were only three universities in Indonesia that ranked in the top 450 in the world in 2018 based on the QS World University Rankings.

We do have homework in improving the quality of human capital. However, this idea should also include developing the quality of government officials. At some point, the way government officials carry out their duty reflects how this country is run. Improving the quality of government officials will help the government to maintain public goods and provide service delivery better to society. In this era, government officials must be updated with current issues, knowledgeable, have good networking skills, and be more effective at their job.    

According to Mapping Indonesia’s Civil Service report published by the National Civil Service Agency (Badan Kepegawaian Nasional), Indonesia’s civil service has expanded by 25 percent in recent years from around 3.6 million in 2006 to more than 4.5 million today. The civil service employs approximately 1.7 percent of the country’s population in 29 national, regional, and local government agencies. Currently, the central government spends around 25 percent of annual government revenue on government expenditure, including government officials’ salaries.  

Governments can be more effective if the people in the system are highly motivated, willing, and able to implement policy and services well. Sending them to study abroad is one way to not only improve their work quality but also increase their motivation. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to study abroad because I think it helped me (as a government official) to learn about so many development issues from international perspectives. Also, I personally believe that now is really a good time for the Indonesian government to send more government officials to study abroad. In this borderless era, government officials will get many benefits from study abroad: meet a diverse range of people, gain a global mindset, challenge themselves with uncommon experiences, acquire new skills, and increase their competitiveness on a global level.   

During my study at Duke, I met with some government officials from many countries, such as Turkey, South Korea, India, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Brazil, and the US. Many times, we discussed the role of government to solve social issues, such as poverty, inequality, corruption, decentralization, economic challenges, climate change, and how to compete in the era of globalization. What is very interesting is that we had a lot of opportunities to discuss those issues from various approaches. Different countries might use different practices and implement different strategies to overcome the same issue. We can always learn from either success or failure stories. Policy strategies that work in some developed countries might not work in other developing countries. 

We learned how different stakeholders sometimes react differently to government policies. Some of my friends at Duke have a lot of experience working with NGOs, international organizations, and the community. In class, we learned how they think about the government’s approach to deal with development issues. At the same time, as a government official, so many times I think I learned a lot from them, for example about how important it is to engage with local leaders in the local community so that the government can get more support to implement its policy that is accepted by the people.  

The opportunity to have many fruitful discussions with wonderful professors is also something that I’m thankful for. Many of them have been and are still involved in development projects in various countries, especially the poor and developing countries. They also work with government leaders and officials in those countries. Many professors that I met at Duke are very approachable, and they like to share their experiences with students. Sometimes we can even be friends with them and call them by their names.   

Before Duke, little did I know that I would have the opportunity to participate in professional development activities. The program that I took at Duke offered these activities. Not only that I got a chance to participate in professional development seminars and training, but also visiting international organizations, like the World Bank and IMF.  

Visiting Durham Innovation Center in the City Hall.
Visiting Durham Innovation Center in the City Hall.

For the last several years, the government has been allocating 20% of the state budget for education. That is a lot of money. Both the central government and local governments play an important role also to include improving the quality of government officials on the list of plans to develop human capital with that money. Through LPDP (Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education), the central government can send thousands of young Indonesians study abroad for the very first time in our history. As now we are one of the most decentralized countries in the world, the role of local governments becomes more crucial. Now, the local governments can also send their best talents to study abroad. However, some local governments might need to encourage and motivate their employees to continue their study or participate in professional development training.  

Indonesia is in a good momentum to become a developed country. One key to achieving this goal is to improve the quality of human capital. This plan should also include how to develop the quality of government officials, both in national and local levels.