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21 January 2023

Indonesian government apps: Why do they suck?

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There are many, many reasons, varying from human resources, management, UI/UX design, testing, operations, maintenance and more.

But the biggest problem of all is the government itself! And here are six main things which I've summarized from hundreds of today's government app issues.

Reason 1: Rapid outsourcing instead of growing and fostering the development team.

Take that 1-starred M-Paspor for example. If you asked, "where are the developers behind this app so I can blame them for things?" The only answer I can say is well, they may be gone after the app's finished.

Many Indonesian government bodies have outsourced developers from software houses, often offering affordable prices. And unfortunately, many of them are only focused on releasing these apps quickly and economically, but not willing to maintain them in the long term.

Because of course, once the contracts are over, they're no longer obligated to maintain the app. It's all back to the government who decided whether to start another contract with them, or find another software house to continue their project.

Reason 2: "Digitalization is optional" for some, just like Depok City.

I have to agree with Mr. Yudianto's "cherry-on-top" comments regarding these apps. Some regional governments just made these apps feel great just to fulfill promises from their leaders' campaigns during the last election. And even worse, in case that these apps are down, many still believe that they can still return to pen-and-paper administration.

https://twitter.com/fransallen/status/1463410005193883648?t=Q762AphooYZMmTzptmv0EA&s=19
Even the government of Depok still require traditional signatures in this era of digitalization.

Reason 3: Overbranding, juxtaposing "electronification", "digital transformation", and "digitally serving the millenial generation" too much.

Of course, I have a few examples here, but let's learn from the case of Sukuk Apps which you can download today from App Store and Google Play.

By the way, since Google Translate can't understand what "sukuk" is, it's all about Sharia-bound state obligation investment.

The app contains so much jargon which I don't understand, assuming that I never learned about English before. Like a bunch of mixed Indonesian and English terms if I set my default language to Indonesian. Do I feel very Jaksel to you?

Another issue worth pointing out is the "e", as in "madness". Those e-e-ification on the bottom app bar tabs are pretty scary. Like "e-Market" which I simply assume to be yet another e-commerce like Amazon and Tokopedia. Or "e-Survey" which allows me to create online forms just like what I can do in Google Forms and Typeform?

Alright, Ministry of Monetary, I know you're promoting the electronification of your service. But this is not what should be done. Like, on that homepage, "Underlying ..."? What message would you like to deliver with that truncated text?

Reason 4: Bureaucrazy and their conventional app development culture.

It is important to note their bureaucrazy, not just bureaucracy, of planning the digitalization of their own services. Again, assuming that they thought they can still safely return to pen-and-paper administration, every Indonesian government apps and digital services are always made by third party developers, who are just lucky enough to win official tenders from central and local governments.

Their motivation? Build apps ASAP so we can digitalize ASAP!

Well, I know, some of you might complain, mentioning the efforts of Jakarta and West Java provincial governments today, where they finally recruit dedicated teams for making apps. That's the latter part of the story, though, as even today we are still seeing this toxic culture still ongoing even in one of the largest law enforcement and public safety government organization in Indonesia.

But well, for the rest of the governments, here's what conventional digitalization commonly look like:

  1. The government never excels in tech. But they do in marketing and election campaigns.

    That's why it's right, Mr. Yudianto, "Quality Assurance" and "UI/UX Designers" (almost) have no home at their annual job offerings. Because they don't understand the importance of them.
  2. So each year, the government estimates the funds first under their annual revenue and expenses allocation plan (APBD/APBN).
  3. The government then opens several projects up for tender.
  4. Software houses apply as candidates.
  5. The government may or may not know how to select a good candidate.
  6. So they either picked up randomly, or look at each portfolio, or choose because there are some recommendation from their personnels, aka. "orang dalam", between the tender winner and the government.
  7. The government creates and gives contracts to the software house.
  8. And as many software houses do, they quickly agree.
  9. The government may have little or no understanding on how their outsourced project managers are doing well or worse. Especially because of (1), the government never excels in tech.
  10. That is why many project managers "tried all their best", meeting everything what the government do as written in contract, despite the latent lack of programmer's soft and hard skills.
  11. Project managers, often crushed with deadlines and frustration with the government itself, forcing every member to speed up their work.
  12. That's why, no wonder these programmers (and often designers) start to ignore quality for the sake of "rapid digitalization", as I can summarize.
  13. "As long as I can still get money from it, why not just stick with PHP?" Or CRUD? or just not innovating at all while repeating their average skills just for money?
https://twitter.com/pr0ph0z/status/1424030988594675713?s=20&t=zdmVQDE_PFVD0OISaT3AkA
https://twitter.com/cahyadi_es/status/1424036633553166339?s=20&t=zdmVQDE_PFVD0OISaT3AkA
  1. Once the project either meets the finish line or the deadline, the software house will definitely consider that the app is "done", despite all the issues and the crunch their workers have done.
  2. The government then spends lots of marketing energy. Be it another press conference, another news article mentioning "digital transformation", or whatever the government could enforce because they are the government.
  3. Months after release, users start to complain things to the government related to their apps.
  4. Government's response: "Thank you for your response, we will try to improve our app" despite the contract is no longer in place.
  5. When netizens declared war against the (performance and quality of) government apps, there's another group of netizens "defending the app". This article should have been released on July 2022, right during the press release of POLRI Super App, but I decided to hold that for so long because of the rise of these tweets:
https://twitter.com/itstigatiga/status/1544305595309690881?s=20&t=zdmVQDE_PFVD0OISaT3AkA
https://twitter.com/Raider49703334/status/1544324994532245504?s=20&t=zdmVQDE_PFVD0OISaT3AkA
https://twitter.com/18kabar_NSTR/status/1544586041369038848?s=20&t=zdmVQDE_PFVD0OISaT3AkA

And of course, because of this as well:

  1. Wait, I'm not done yet! The government ended up choosing one of the three possible options:
    • Renegotiate with the tender winner to extend their contract,
    • Or hold another tender and back to Step 3,
    • Or hold the improvement project entirely due to financial issues, so they may continue at the next year(s) and return to Step 1.

Fortunately, after the initial app release in July, POLRI decided to choose Option 1. At the time of this writing our team is still improving on things, including the depreciation of earlier PolisiKu and Digital Korlantas for the sake of POLRI Super App.

Reason 5: The fight between tender winners.

Tender winners also tend to compete with each other, too. And you guessed it, for winning more projects and money. Even during the first cases of COVID-19 entering Indonesia, governments and tender winners decided to declare a great war.

No, not the great war of fighting the pandemic. But the great war of fighting to be the best, winning COVID-19 superapp in Indonesia.

This is, no joke. There are competing tender winners working at about projects to build individual COVID-19 information, contact tracing, and public control apps in Indonesia. Long story short (from my own Twitter thread), there are at least 6 projects from unrelated teams:

  1. PeduliLindungi from the Telkom Indonesia group,
  2. Bersatu Lawan COVID-19 (BLC-19), in which many of their veterans are joining into POLRI Super App,
  3. 10 Rumah Aman from the Ministry of Communication and Informatics (KOMINFO),
  4. Jakarta Tanggap Corona and JAKI from the Jakarta Smart City (JSC) team,
  5. Pusat Informasi dan Koordinasi COVID-19 Jawa Barat (PIKOBAR) from Jabar Digital Service, aka. the JSC of the West Java Province,
  6. Heck, even the Surabaya City Government created an Android app ("Surabaya Lawan COVID", not released to Google Play Store) which is shortly discontinued.

Did you understand what I mean? Indonesia's Regional Autonomy laws fragment the effectiveness of these apps. Some apps are only good for their region, only, while the first three apps seems to compete for unknown reason.

And I've contributed to the BLC-19 project as well, I have to admit that, I "hacked" PeduliLindungi for the sake of BLC-19's plans for creating an integrated dashboard for governments. That includes dismantling the APK to extract all possible endpoints from the PeduliLindungi's servers, and because I've noticed that an earlier iOS version of the app contains an accessible network debugger - which I can finally get their API keys!

Wait, didn't you get the joke? I've hacked the Indonesian government for the sake of the Indonesian government!

Fast forward to today, and this competition still exists even after the POLRI Super App's launch. Digital Korlantas (an earlier Police Force app for traffic and driving license management) are still being marketed to the public today, even though that we're (yes, on behalf of the greater TIK POLRI team) planning to deprecate the app in favor of POLRI Super App.

https://twitter.com/khunxwhite/status/1587815218796953601

Reason 6: And lastly, their long-standing "one app is only good for one CRUD service" principle.

This principle, if I'm not mistaken, drives back to the days of Symbian and Java feature phones. They are limited in capacity and capabilities, so there's no such thing as "superapps" in their limited app ecosystem.

The Indonesian government, or that tender winners, tend to bring this principle forward into the era of smartphones. Their minds weren't enlightened with the ways of superapps, or at least, "modular app ecosystems" like LINE with all their web-based mini-apps (before they finally grew up into a dedicated super app). This is why the Semarang government decided to do that.

Wait, what again? This list of 40+ apps which even my friends at Semarang didn't knew they existed.

And this is exactly what they did! There's an app to book tickets for events in Semarang (Semartix), there's another two to provide feedbacks to the city government (E-Pokir and Lapor Hendi), there's also one to let residents and visitors to join the Semarang Great Sale craze, and there's one for citizen administration (Dukcapil / Si D'nOK) and so on. Even though that most of these apps are no longer available in the Google Play Store.

But today, do you even bother to free up more phone space just so you can install all of these apps to get "the best Semarang City experience" in your whole life? Yet I believe if apps like Gojek and Traveloka didn't exist today, the quality of Indonesian government apps will still remain the same.

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