Troubled Transparency

Data availability and credibility is now receiving international attention. There is light at the end of the tunnel. But is this enough for the policy researcher? Incongruent systems within a government and inconsistencies in policy implementation need to be identified, acknowledged, admitted, understood and worked on. It is ironic that in a technologically advanced age, the stages and processes of policy-making are still not readily available to the public. In some countries, bits and pieces of information are disseminated for open access. What is the point if the fragments cannot be strung together to make sense? While policy implementation is announced, policy outcome is swept under the carpet. This is a common streak among many states. It is unrealistic to expect absolute transparency. At the same time, processes should be transparent enough to facilitate research. 

In the study of migration in ASEAN, policy-making processes in each of the ten states need to be analysed. In most member states, the domestic political situation changes with every election. In Malaysia, a drastic change in the political climate is still being manifested in different forms. The Thais are anxiously awaiting their turn to vote and the Indonesians are no exception. Policy-making styles change according to the ruling regime or party. Indeed, it is a challenge to attempt a study of migration policy processes in certain member states, for, changes could occur at the point when a substantive research conclusion is about to be made, rendering the findings irrelevant. This is not the only difficulty. Often, structured policy-making is absent. Sometimes, there is no record of how decisions are arrived at; if there are records, they are not transparent. Fundamentally, processes are not reliable and repeatable.

The policy researcher would need to understand the migration policy processes between the state and civil society actors, bearing in mind that there are instances when civil society participation is prohibited. The level of inter-ministry collaboration would reflect differing perspectives, objectives and mandates with regard to migration. If government departments have been functioning in silos, contradictory policies and unexpected outcomes risk disrupting political stability. Uncovering how policy is made also enables the researcher to understand why policies often yield unintended results.

Other key areas that need probing would be the relationships between the migration policy processes of each member state and ASEAN; the processes of ASEAN and institutions of global governance such as the ILO and the IOM; and the processes of each state and international organisations. These relationships should be aligned. Each ASEAN country should fulfil its commitment to the global compact. This is not the present situation and the researcher would need to identify areas of policy convergence and divergence.

What are the processes in place between global governance institutions and non-state civil society actors in ASEAN? Is there sufficient participation of non-sate actors in policy-making processes? Business interests linking member states and international organisations should also be explored. Policy processes between sending and receiving states need not be complementary, but outcomes should ideally be a cogwheel fit.

How would the policy researcher study processes that are absent or restricted? How can research progress without access? There will never be absolute transparency in policy-making processes. Though this is a constraint on research scope and depth, it should not be an excuse to redirect attention elsewhere. It would be best to pursue evidence-based research, but a lack of evidence should not lead to a lack of research in policy-making processes. Why not describe the problem of acquiring evidence and incorporate it into the research? Why not give the root cause a louder voice? For transparency, acknowledgement of the issue could be a small step towards greater visibility.

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