Creativity in the Time of Pandemic

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Meigita Utami and her colleagues from Perkumpulan Ide dan Analitika Indonesia (IDEA) were met with some resistance the first time they introduced the open contracting program to the officials of Bantul Regency Government. Meigita, however, was quick to read the room.

“We immediately changed the way we communicate. We scrapped ‘open contracting’ and championed governance instead,” Meigita recalled her experience. “So, the program we ended up proposing was ‘Clean Water Governance in Bantul’, where we used transparency and accountability as the entry point to open contracting.”

A program that promotes public data transparency, in particular in a contracting process, open contracting encourages all data and documents to be made available to the public. In Bantul, Yogyakarta, the program focuses on clean water service. It seeks to ensure that the contracting process between the government and the water company (PDAM) is transparent, fair, and efficient – thereby enabling good governance and ultimately better access to clean water for the public.

What Meigita and her colleagues faced early on was just a small example of the hurdles they encountered along the way since the program started in October 2019. Only four months later, the biggest challenge to date occurred: the COVID-19 pandemic. The unexpected health crisis upended not just the program, but also life in general.

“We had no meetings from March to July with the people we’re supposed to work with,” Meigita said.

After the initial flurry, however, the program had to continue. Meigita and her team needed to be creative, and once again they proved to be resourceful. Amid health protocols, they decided to use open-source online platforms.

“We also produced educational videos for community members, so that they have some materials they can go over anytime,” she said.

The materials were circulated via WhatsApp. IDEA has been working primarily with rural communities, who are already familiar with this messaging platform.

But what they had not been familiar with was the fact that clean water service was a government’s obligation mandated by the law. “We told them that clean water is a fundamental right,” added Galih Pramilu, one of Meigita’s colleagues. “After they’re aware of this, we started encouraging their participation in water governance and service monitoring.”

We told them that clean water is a fundamental right. Afterward, we encouraged their participation in water governance and service monitoring

The communities in question for this program are Pinilih Disabled Persons Group and Poor Women Group of Kasihan District. While members of both groups have been quite knowledgeable about budgeting and social assistance, organizing and expressing opinions in a public forum would be new experiences to them.

Finding a way for the groups’ members to participate in the government’s      decision-making forums, especially when it comes to water access, was therefore IDEA’s next task. This was something that IDEA would need to work on step by step.

“We started by educating them about their right to participate in musrenbang (development planning forum) from village to regency levels,” Meigita explained. The groups learned to get comfortable speaking in a village and district forum. Building upon that confidence, IDEA then encouraged the groups to establish a formal association in order to participate in a regency level forum. “They could join a village forum as individual participants, but they need to be present as a formal organization at the regency level.”

Facilitated by IDEA, Paguyuban Tirtowening was born out of this necessity. Despite coming from different districts and smaller community-level groups, village residents had agreed to join this bigger organization so that they could talk about clean water service at a regency forum.

Beyond clean water, the organization can also be a vehicle of rural communities to raise other pertinent issues in the future. IDEA, in the meantime, would continue to give them information and educate them about their basic rights.

Bantul people were also learners, Meigita said, especially the disabled persons. Knowing their basic rights has made them more confident. “’I need to be involved in the government’s development decision-making process,’” Meigita repeated a statement made by an individual who has been assisted by IDEA.

IDEA’s community outreach was only one side of Meigita and her colleagues’ work. The other side of that was government lobbying, through formal and informal means, to ensure community-government synergy. To that end, IDEA got involved in various activities initiated by Bantul Regency Government.

IDEA seeks to ensure community-government synergy. They got involved in various activities of initiated by Bantul Regency Government

“We expressed from the start that this program is not intended to criticize, but to provide constructive insights,” said Meigita. “The government tends to see NGOs as the opposition. But we learn about Bantul’s clean water governance and propose our recommendations to make it more transparent and participatory.”

Meigita and Galih have noted some important lessons learned from this experience. First was the importance of raising basic rights awareness, especially among vulnerable groups who were often left out. Second, community participation was not a given, but had to be earned and fought for consistently.

Last but not least, IDEA learned to be a tactful communicator, tailoring their communication techniques with the context and target audience. This included the use of plain language in the materials produced for community members and choice of technology to reach them. “It took some getting used to in interacting with persons with disabilities, especially the deaf,” said Meigita, but IDEA has now adapted by changing their communications methods and working with sign language interpreters.