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From structural to functional roles in the Indonesian government context

By Bitra Suyatno - posted Friday, 20 December 2019

On 20th of October 2019 President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) expressed his eagerness to cut the current five-structure levels in ministries, known as the echelon system, to just two levels while creating more functional roles that value expertise and competence. Moreover, he would streamline the structures of echelon III (administrative positions), echelon IV (supervisory positions) and echelon V (executive positions) in the bureaucracy. The functional roles are held for the public servants in functional positions such as researchers, medical doctors, policy analysts, librarians and lecturers.

However, it does not mean that all echelons will be removed. For instance, for the administrative jobs, include general office managementanswering phones, speaking with clients, assisting an employer, clerical work (including maintaining records and entering data), or a variety of other tasks, the Government will keep the structural roles.

By cutting layers, it is hoped the bureaucratic process in Indonesia will become simpler and faster because each step does need additional review and approval from each echelon. Moreover, it is hoped that the result would be more reliable because it is handled directly by experts. If it is implemented, the high-educated and skilled public service employees should have brighter prospect. It gives those group of individuals more opportunities to apply their knowledge and expertise optimally.


Based on National Civil Service Agency data last June 2019, among 4.28 million public servants in Indonesia, 50.17% were in functional roles, 39.10% did clerical jobs, and 10.73% held structural positions. It means that we have to focus on the second and third group which is around 2.13 (49.83%) million public servants. It is a high number of employees.

However, cutting the bureaucratic echelon system is not an easy task. Many bureaucrats especially the ranked officials are already in a comfort zone. They have too many vested interests to be echelons. They pursue the position because it is perceived as stabile and secure. Moreover, structural positions often offer higher take home pay and supporting facilities than functional roles. The implication is that if two employees have the same grading level, one who has a structural role will get higher rewards than the one who is in a functional role. Although the structure may slow the bureaucratic process, ruining the echelons’ careers may create resistance. Many echelon officials would be reluctant to change.

In addition, the current bureaucratic environment and individuals’ mindsets do not support for experts applying their knowledge or expertise. Arguably, many public officials still fail to consider that research could help the institutions to achieve their objectives including designing policies and regulations. Many still feel comfortable with their ‘business as usual’ approaches and fail to link the needs of evidence-based policies (using research) and policy-making processes. As shown by Professor of Pharmacology and Therapy in Padjajaran University, Prof. Rovina Ruslami, one of the receivers of the “Habibie Award” in 2018. She showed her frustration that she often experienced difficulties collaborating with government officials in terms of internalizing research into public policies. It indicates that several public officials have not taken science seriously as the basis of designing their public policies and regulations. If it is common that bureaucrats do not consider research important, how could we expect that they would value high-educated and skilled individuals important as required by functional roles?    

Indonesians’ cultural dimensions may also hamper creativity and critical thinking as required by functional roles. Regarding this context, Hofstede and Hofstede in 2005, known for mapping cultural differences between societies, would describe Indonesian cultural dimensions as high power distance. It has the characteristic that lower level individuals tend to accept orders from higher ranking individuals without questioning. The implication of this phenomenon is that the norm may discourage employees to have critical thinking and create lack of initiative. Yet critical thinking and creativity are the most important ingredients for employees to hold functional positions.

To solve the problems, we propose that to change individuals’ mindset, especially the ranked officials, government needs to gradually create conducive environments to encourage employees who want to apply for functional positions. For instance, if a ranked employee already fills requirements (i.e. working tenure, education, experience, and expertise), he or she could be given an opportunity to take an exam to be functional. Once he or she passes the exam with a high grade, he or she could get a higher functional level position. For echelon IIIs, IVs, and Vs who don’t want to take the test, they could compete for structural positions.  

Another program is to loosen requirement barriers for under-utilized highly-educated or skilled employees who are placed as clerical employees on a low level ladder to move to functional positions even across government institutions. Institutions with abundant under-utilized highly-educated or skilled employees should transfer their employees to the institutions that need those skills. However, it is not an easy task. Even if institutions are keen to transfer their under-utilized highly-educated employees to other institutions, are the employees warmly welcomed by the latter? Arguably, some possible barriers are a silo mentality, complicated rules to transfer employees from one institution to another, political interests, corruption, and nepotism. We need a breakthrough strategy so that all ministries and government institutions could sit down and talk to try to eliminate the problems.


Finally, institutions could offer incentives or bonuses for functional employees who reach targeted credit points as well as create innovative approaches to really solve problems. The incentives should be more attractive than their peer echelons’ take-home pay. For instance, functional roles could offer faster career ladder and longer tenure for more productive employees than if they are in echelon positions.

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About the Author

Bitra Suyatno ( is a Doctor of Business Administration who graduated from Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia in 2018. Currently he is working at the Ministry of Finance the Republic of Indonesia. His posts represent his own views. He blogs at

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