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Local Knowledge MattersPower, Context and Policy Making in Indonesia$

Kharisma Nugroho, Fred Carden, and Hans Antlov

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781447348078

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447348078.001.0001

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Local knowledge in democratic policy making

Local knowledge in democratic policy making

(p.43) Three Local knowledge in democratic policy making
Local Knowledge Matters
Kharisma Nugroho, Fred Carden, Hans Antlov
Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Building on the argument that local knowledge is political, this chapter investigates how knowledge plays a key role not just in policy formulation but also in implementation. Local knowledge is generated by citizens in everyday conversations and forums, often articulated in civil society and popular participation, including religious knowledge. We argue for local knowledge as a prerequisite for the democratisation of policy making and the improvement of public policies. To improve the use of local knowledge in public policy making, communities and partners need to work with local knowledge through its political dimensions.

Keywords:   political economy, democratic governance, public management, religious knowledge, NGOs

As discussed in the Introduction, a diversity of knowledge sources is a hallmark of healthy policy making. But not all voices and sources of knowledge are valued and resourced equally in Indonesia. Many citizen organisations are hesitant to be too closely associated with government. For their part, technocrats, scientists and government decision makers can be reluctant to engage with local knowledge. Consequently, there is mutual distrust that can only be overcome by improved interaction and deepened respect (Guggenheim, 2012; Rakhmani and Siregar, 2016).

This chapter argues that paying attention to local citizen-generated knowledge is crucial for better policy making and democracy by providing context and meaning. A country’s knowledge sector can be improved by opening up policy making to citizens and democratising the public sphere. These approaches, as we will see in the empirical chapters, can be more sustainable than top-down development designs of state leaders and experts. This chapter will start with a historical exposé of public decision making and move to how policies are produced. We will then make the case that local knowledge is a (p.44) prerequisite for democratisation of policy making and the improvement of public policies.

The study of meaning and local knowledge

Definitions of local knowledge are mainly found in anthropological literature. Clifford Geertz (1983) defines local knowledge as knowledge held locally, by local people, a cultural system which becomes common sense for people who share a communal sensibility. The emphasis here is on meaning; the interpretation of culture is ‘not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning’ (Geertz, 1973: 5). Cultural studies of politics and policies argue that beliefs and perceptions are constituent parts of government and policy making. Politics should be viewed not only as competition over scarce resources, but also as representations of historical practices and local knowledge (Cannadine and Price, 1987; Kertzer, 1988; Vincent, 1990; Gledhill, 1994; Schaffer, 1998; Olivier de Sardan, 2005; Bubandt, 2014). Cultural representations are instruments for political discourse. Political symbolism, rituals and normative representation are employed for the legitimate execution of power and domination.

The lack of cultural understanding within a democracy negatively affects its basic meaning: a powerful political imagery of hope and autonomy. To achieve this, ‘democracy has to be driven by a “spirit”, a secular dream of trust and mutual association by the people and for the people’ (Bubandt, 2014: 13). In a study of democracy and violence in Sri Lanka, Jonathan Spencer (2007: 15) notes that something is lost ‘if we insist on excluding local meaning from our definition of the political’ (see also Schaffer, 1998 for how to understand local forms of democracy in Senegal). In the same vein, the lack of meaning and context negatively affects how policy making is implemented.

While the anthropologist’s perspective has provided us with an important understanding of what constitutes local knowledge (the values, beliefs and meanings) and the nature of local knowledge which combines logics of description and logics of prescription (Yanow, 2003), a political-economy analysis of local knowledge requires (p.45) additional analytical concepts, which help us to analyse and understand whether the production and use of local knowledge are inputs or rather outcomes of the political-economy relations in a society. Distinguishing the political-economy dimensions of local knowledge in its production and use, as well as the relationship between them is important, as contexts vary. Such a perspective addresses:

  • What is local?

  • Which (local) people are engaged and how?

  • Whose definition prevails?

  • Who owns what and how do we know they do/do not?

  • Who decides local knowledge uptake?

  • Who wins, who loses?

On the supply (knowledge production) side, the political-economy dimensions of local knowledge can be analysed from a socio-economic perspective on structure and hierarchies in the community that generates the local knowledge because these are the quintessential manifestations of power that will shape the structure of local knowledge. In this respect, local knowledge is a consequence of power relations in a community; it is produced by and through a given structure and order, and has dominant and subordinate relationships – local knowledge reflects structures of authority and power in a community – the essence of politics. Citizens seldom use local knowledge exclusively; they integrate scientific and professional knowledge from their own lived experience. It is this broader concept of local knowledge that reflects the links between the three types of knowledge, and that plays an important role in the participation of communities in public policy processes.

On the demand (policy making) side, political economy queries are about understanding the incentives or disincentives that favour or hinder the use of local knowledge; this informs what knowledge or intermediary mechanisms are most appropriate for informing and influencing public policy making, as well as why some types of knowledge are more acceptable or suitable than others. Based on case (p.46) studies from Southeast Asian countries, Pellini et al (2012) present a framework to understand the landscape: technical evidence alone is not effective in influencing the local knowledge-to-policy market. Only an inclusive and inter-disciplinary supply of different types of knowledge by different stakeholders will result in positive outcomes by establishing a more accountable, participatory and transparent local governance environment.

As seen in Figure 1.2, in Chapter One, policy development does not occur in a predictable way. This means that we need to focus on issues of values, context and power, issues that matter to people where they live and work. As we will see in Chapters Four to Six, there are many exciting knowledge initiatives emerging from spontaneous solutions generated by individuals and communities in Indonesia. These can at times be more sustainable than top-down development designs of state leaders and experts. They are based on trial and error, iterations, and adapting to changes in the natural and human-made environment – in short, on local knowledge that emerges from lived experience and practice.

Public decision making, bureaucratic power and local knowledge

Let us now make a quick detour to the historical relationship between public policy and different forms of knowledge, which will allow us to better understand the current importance of local knowledge. The past 50 years have seen the global emergence of three waves of policy making and public management, characterised as, from Rowing to Steering to Serving (Denhardt and Denhardt, 2007).

Both Rowing and Steering gave primacy to the state in public management. In the Rowing phase, following the Second World War, the birth of modern public management was populated by technocrats with thoughts of social engineering. They set the policies and were very much at the top of the pyramid in public management (Weiler, 2009). In the 1980s, ‘new public management’ emerged to address some of the limitations of the earlier approach (Hood, 1991). It had an emphasis on re-inventing government to adopt a more private sector (p.47) approach (Osborne and Gaebler, 1993). This Steering phase recognised to some degree that a previous failure had been the lack of a role for the citizen. In the New Public Management, citizens were choosing between public goods, taking a free-market ideology as their basis, although services continued to be designed and delivered by technical specialists in a process that was intended to be mediated by public demand. What this approach failed to realise was that government looks after public as well as private good. This approach could not accommodate public good and therefore largely failed.

These schools of public management failed in part because they did not take local knowledge into account and did not effectively engage the citizenry. Wildavsky and Pressman (1973) make a similar point in their wide-ranging study of policy implementation in the United States. They demonstrate that policy failure at implementation is not only about the complexity of the institutional mechanisms but also that policies designed at the national level in Washington DC do not take into account regional differences, rural–urban differences, and so on. In other words, they do not correspond to the needs of citizens in local communities and are designed without the benefit of citizen input.

Because of what was seen as a failure by new public management to serve the public good, the past two decades have witnessed calls for deepening democracy through a new role for public administrators, transparency of information and social accountability. Sometimes called ‘new public service’ (Denhardt and Denhardt, 2007) or ‘deliberative democracy’ (Gastil and Levine, 2005), the focus is on the role of policy making and public management to serve the public, not the other way around. In this deeper engagement of ‘co-governance’ (Ackerman, 2004), citizens take part in policy making, monitoring and calling service organisations and government to account through a number of mechanisms, for example, ombudsman, mobilisation of the public, mass media or the court system. It moves beyond the ‘ritual participation’ of the traditional tick-the-box planning process (Cooke and Kothari, 2001; Hickey and Mohan, 2004) and allows for a more constructive role of citizens in monitoring and ensuring that public service standards are reached.

(p.48) This transition from ‘government to governance’ has important implications for our discussion of evidence and knowledge. The failures of the old and new public management paradigms are also the failures of the state that focused on limited sources of knowledge. Today, government is no longer the sole holder of knowledge. The question is who owns which knowledge and the issue is the fairness of the contestation of different types of knowledge, both in use for policy as well as in the production of knowledge. Thus, the government’s new ‘serving’ role is, on the one hand, to facilitate and make things happen (being the enabling state, serving the public) and, on the other hand, providing the space for contestation and multiple sources of sets of knowledge. Government officials need to interact with people not as clients or objects but as citizens with rights and holders of valuable local knowledge. The new skills that a government official needs to learn include how to create spaces for citizen involvement in policy decisions and oversight, how to commission (rather than provide) a range of public services, and how to lead negotiations and mobilise consent about desired local policies.

Working politically

Public policy is a political product. To improve the use of local knowledge in public policy making we need to work with local knowledge through its political dimensions. Local knowledge as a shared communal sensibility is a representation of a community’s shared concerns or aspirations. From a political perspective, local knowledge is an interest group. Local knowledge falls under one influential definition of interest groups (Martini, 2012: 2): ‘any association of individuals or organisations that on the basis of one or more shared concerns, attempts to influence public policy in its favour’. In the context of policy making, we could see local knowledge as a shared political aspiration. In this regard, the domain of contestation is thus not about how to make local knowledge scientific so that it can compete with scientific knowledge in the knowledge hierarchy, but to acknowledge the importance of contestation with other interest (p.49) groups in influencing policy. Local knowledge producers, as an interest group, may focus on their position as representing public interest and holding local knowledge that will compete with other interests (scientific and professional).

Local knowledge, through a political representation platform, may directly or indirectly influence policy-making processes through intermediary actors (parliament members, civil society actors or even the so-called professional lobbyists) as it seeks to affect legislative action. These attempts to influence policy making may take place through various mechanisms, including direct communication with government officials, participation in public hearings, drafting reports to members of the government on specific policy issues, as well as through social media and setting public discourse in conventional media. In this process, as noted by Bievre (2007), local knowledge should work with different types of knowledge and resources, such as expertise on policy issues, information on the opinions of other policy makers, and community organisers.

Transforming local knowledge into an interest group platform to inform policy is not a corrupt or illegitimate activity.1 It is about working politically to ensure that the community’s shared aspirations are adopted in public policy. Interest group platforms can improve policy making, and they play an important role in holding governments accountable by providing community consent as well pressure in the legislative and regulatory processes. In a decentralised country like Indonesia, interest group influence through lobbying is an alternative instrument of political influence vis-à-vis corruption that is centred around political parties (Keefer, 2002).

It should be noted that the advantages and disadvantages of this platform will depend on how much power such interest groups have, (p.50) as well as how power is distributed among them (Martini, 2012). As seen in one case study in this book, disproportionate influence of a dominant clan in a coastal fishery policy in Maluku, for example, could have led to undue influence or elite capture that marginalised other clans; while a male dominated whale hunting industry in Lembata in East Nusa Tenggara may have ignored women’s needs or aspirations around participation in whale hunting. The relationship between policy makers and interest groups walks a fine ethical line that separates participatory democracy from undue influence.

The primary focus here is the local knowledge that communities use to influence policy processes. But there are other forms of local knowledge. One of these is religious knowledge, to which we now briefly turn our attention. When we think about processes of using knowledge and evidence, often an underlying assumption is that the types of knowledge that are valid for influencing policy, such as research, data and evidence, are all secular. However, there is also local knowledge that refers to religious scriptures and practices and that can have a positive impact on public policy.

(p.53) Local knowledge and participatory development

Citizen participation involves systematic participation in policy formulation and decision making by groups of citizens, linking those who have developed participatory methods for consultation, planning and monitoring to the new governance agenda (Manor, 1998; Blair, 2000; Pimbert, 2001; Fung and Wright, 2003). The goal of citizen engagement is not to ensure that everyone gets what they want all the time, but to change the power relationship to some fairer form of reconciliation of competing claims,4 and to add more diversity to knowledge claims.

Early participatory development was often measured by popular presence in meetings. A development project would be considered ‘participatory’ if we could show disaggregated data about the number of community members (by sex, ideally) who attended the project’s meetings. This was a very low bar by which to measure participation. The new generation of thinking in participatory development is more on substantial participation and the incorporation of scientific, professional and local knowledge in policy making. In other words, how much is the development process informed by the community’s ideas and aspirations: how culturally sensitive, how gender sensitive, how inclusive? Conceptualising the community as the master of the development process, then, is measured more qualitatively in a power-relations framework. Under this new thinking about participatory development, the central factor is not community participation, but democratisation of knowledge: how far local knowledge is appropriated in development decision-making processes. What the people know and have practised over time should be part of the design of policies and projects that seek to empower and develop these people, who are defined as excluded or marginalised.

There is a danger that local knowledge can become elitist when it is used to increase community participation through mobilisation (p.54) (Cooke and Kothari, 2001). The institutionalisation of gampong in Aceh’s administration (see Chapter Four, case study 7) is one such example. Policies, projects and programmes are designed from above. At the local level, local leaders mobilise citizens to participate in the implementation of these programmes just to provide labour or to legitimise operations. Conducive political and ethical conditions for development processes need to be set by:5

  • seeking the community’s consent;

  • ensuring community members are adequately informed about the projects under consideration; the information made available is both adequate and relevant, and properly packaged; people are able to make sense of it; and the information can be used as a tool in their decision making;

  • challenging peoples’ existing representation system so that the project is inclusive;

  • ensuring representatives are elected and accountable to the citizens; they represent their community’s views and opinions; this political dimension is sometimes neglected in debates on the use of local knowledge in development because local knowledge is perceived as an indigenous mechanism that is not necessarily democratic and inclusive;

  • providing a platform for dialogue;

  • agreeing on what kind of organisations and communities should have their voices heard; engaging in discussion and decision making that is uninterrupted by a development project’s power structure; if the decisions are local-knowledge based, people are not afraid to make whatever proposition they want to make if it is a shared concern in the community.

The other strategic role of local knowledge in democratising the development process is through opening up for inclusive decision (p.55) making. Decentralisation is devolution of power. Local knowledge informs the appropriate structure and mechanism for resource management and decision-making processes. The ultimate use of local knowledge in development is empowerment. Here, power is given to the people through using indigenous knowledge and capacities that are available on the ground. These indigenous structures of participation enable people at the community level with the elected representatives to participate in discussions about development problems and their solutions. Local knowledge should be available for different groups of community members so that the local people are able to determine which project they prefer, how resources should be mobilised internally, and what is needed from outside.

Society today is more complex than it was a generation ago. In a lower-middle-income country such as Indonesia, simple development issues have been addressed: building schools and setting a strong education budget, for example. With globalisation and increasing layers of actors in governance, solutions are much more complex: how to get all children through secondary school is not simply a matter of building schools; it requires addressing a multitude of social and economic issues, including ensuring teaching quality, building community priority on education, creating incentives for school attendance, among others. These issues cannot be solved technically (Mangkusubroto et al, 2016). They call for behavioural changes not only in government policies and practices surrounding universal education, but also from parents and teachers. There are multiple layers of governance: Indonesia has recently decentralised decision making to 75,000 villages (Antlov et al, 2016), while at the regional level the country is a member of the ASEAN Free Trade Community and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Issues such as equitable growth and climate change cannot be addressed by a single line ministry alone. Complexity requires government to change, using multiple sources of knowledge and data to find proper solutions.

New governance structures and citizen demands can compel government agencies to expand public consultations, implement participatory governance practices at the local level, encourage (p.56) popular participation, and develop new partnerships with civil society organisations – the New Public Service. Governance, policy and politics are no longer only for specialised experts, politicians and government officials. This requires a ‘de-professionalisation’ of politics and public administration (Fischer, 2009), or in the words of Harry Boyte (2004: xi), ‘breaking the tyranny of technique’. In a more positive light, it is the democratisation of public policy, involving citizens in public policies, decision making and the knowledge-to-policy process.

We thus need to broaden the role of citizens and local knowledge beyond that of being objects of state policy, passive recipients of government funding or quaint producers of local wisdom. The disillusion with mainstream politics is something we have seen in Europe and the United States over the past decades. As mentioned, this has given birth to new forms of populism, citizen politics, deliberative democracy and everyday governance experiments. Interestingly, just as in Indonesia, it seems that the most exciting developments are happening at the local level, because that is where the density of social forces is to be found and where political recruitment and the building of constituencies takes place. It is also where people can translate national policies into local programmes and where local issues relate to national ideology.

Scientific knowledge can only add value if the experts producing it understand the meaning and the local context. If ‘what matters is what works’ (Tony Blair, quoted in Banks, 2009: 1), we need local knowledge to show what works under what conditions and for whom. It is not the policy solution that is the end; it is actually making policies work – and this is where the donor community has often failed in promoting locally sensitive solutions. This is all the more true if we are looking at policy ideas that inherently are about political choices and preferences. Policy without local knowledge will be ill targeted and random, and impact may be positive, neutral or negative. Enriching policies by incorporating local knowledge contributes to the testing and factual observation that is at the core of knowledge generation for national development.

(p.57) Conclusion

The new governance paradigm introduced in this chapter is about process, politics and context. Through participation of citizens and the integration of local knowledge in policy making, a connection between the community and public good is made. It allows citizens as users to have a more direct, informed and creative say in rewriting the policies by which public services are designed and delivered. That requires a democratisation of the public policy-making process, in which citizens participate not only during elections but also on everyday issues. Power is generated by citizen action. Sustainable political action begins with ‘a thousand tiny empowerments’, not grand designs (Sandercock, 1998).

Policy making is inherently political: ‘Values, interests, personalities, timing, circumstance and happenstance – in short, democracy – determine what actually happens’ (Banks, 2009: 4). We must investigate issues that matter in the locality in which we live (Flyvbjerg, 2001: 166). If it is true that as Peter Drucker famously said, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner’, it behoves us to give closer consideration to the social meanings and context that make up context and culture – otherwise we will end up with picture-perfect policies that might fail in implementation. When research influences policy, as noted by Carden (2009: 50), ‘it is always in the turbulent confluence of factors that shape policy decisions and policy outcomes’. And in this turbulence, we need to be guided by the knowledge and context created by local communities and citizens. (p.58)


(1) There are debates about the pros and cons of interest groups’ influence on policy making (Zinnbauer, 2009; Martini, 2012). Using interest groups to influence the policy process is a key element of the decision-making process. Martini (2012) also describes the advantages and disadvantages of working through interest groups, regarding how much power such interest groups have, and how power is distributed among them.

(2) Special thanks to Robin Bush for drafting this section of the chapter.

(3) The Minister for Home Affairs has publicly declared that citizens do not have to fill in the ‘religion’ field on their KTP, but this has yet to be formally translated into policy or law, so it is not yet being observed. Furthermore, in November 2017 the Constitutional Court ruled that followers of indigenous faiths do not have to leave the ‘religion’ field blank on their KTP, in essence constituting recognition by the state of indigenous faiths. Whether this will result in an end to discriminatory policies based on religious affiliation remains to be seen.

(5) Adapted from Laaksonen (2006). Susskind and Cruikshank (2006) present a similar approach in Breaking Robert’s Rules.