Decentralisation Does Not Automatically Lead to Pro-Learning Education Policies: Evidence from Indonesia

Decentralisation does lead to localised policy making but doesn’t necessarily lead to improved learning; national oversight is still needed to ensure equitable outcomes. 


Decentralisation, or devolving authority to the third tier of government to prioritise specific policy reforms and manage their implementation, is argued to lead to pro-poor development. In the education sector, most developing countries have tried to devolve authority for education policy making and implementation to the district governments in a bid to improve quality of education provided in state schools.  

Indonesia is one of the countries in which decentralisation has been actively pursued since early 2000s. Education priorities are set at the district government level, giving district government bureaucrats and the district level political elites greater control over shaping of education policies. Two RISE studies (Community-Responsive Education Policies and the Question of Optimality: Decentralisation and District-Level Variation in Policy Adoption and Implementation in Indonesia and The Role of District-Level Political Elites in Education Planning in Indonesia: Evidence from Two Districts) explore whether greater autonomy over education policies leads district government education bureaucracies or district level political elites to prioritise programmes aimed at improving learning outcomes. Examining the policies prioritised across a rural and an urban district in West Java, Karawang, and Purwakarta respectively, the two studies suggest that devolving authority for education planning and implementation to the district governments does lead to localised policy making, but that does not necessarily help fix the learning crisis:

  1. It is difficult to fix the short route of accountability when the long route is failing as the incentive structures across different tiers of governance are linked. Thus, elected elites at the district government level show the same tendencies for collusion and rents distribution around education sector jobs as seen at the national level: the competitive and clientelist nature of political settlements in Indonesian national politics is reproduced at the district government level. District government political elites thus invest in tokenistic policies that help them gain visibility, such as investment in infrastructure or offering scholarships, rather than prioritising long-term reforms needed to fix the learning crisis.  

  2. The district-level political elites do, however, show a considerable level of engagement with education issues: governments in both districts under study allocate higher percentage of the district-government budget to education than mandated by the national legislation. This suggests that decentralisation has enabled communities to exert pressure on political elites to prioritise education even if the policies adopted remain piecemeal. 

  3. The difference in education policies pursued across the two districts under study shows that decentralisation is leading to more context-specific education policy planning in Indonesia. Such localised policy making is assumed to result in improved service delivery. However, it also opens up the possibility of significant district-level variation in outcomes. This can lead to major variation in education provision and learning outcomes across districts overtime. There thus remains a role for national level oversight to ensure equity in education investments and outcomes overtime.  

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