Indonesia’s chaotic aviation regulation as shown by the AirAsia Bhd. jet crash highlights the task for President Joko Widodo to bring transparency and efficiency to the bureaucracy of the world’s largest archipelago.

AirAsia’s doomed flight 8501 from Surabaya to Singapore took off on Dec. 28, a Sunday, without a transport ministry permit to fly that day. The government has since suspended the license of AirAsia for that route, found other airlines in breach of permits, and removed officials involved from the ministry, state air-navigation operator AirNav Indonesia and state airport company PT Angkasa Pura 1.

Widodo, known as Jokowi, has pledged to cut red tape and hold officials to account as he seeks to attract investment and revitalize Southeast Asia’s largest economy. To do so he must create order from a system where many local offices don’t even have computers and processes are often handled by a multitude of ministries.

“The breakthrough must come from the top,” said Achmad Sukarsono, a political science lecturer at Binus University in Jakarta. “A leadership that dares to break the cancerous code in the upper echelons and then reform the mindset at the bottom.”

The crash of Flight 8501 gives Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan, formerly the state railway chief, impetus to attack the problem, though he will face resistance from entrenched interest groups, he said.

As Jakarta governor, Jokowi made surprise visits to government offices to test processes, raised tax revenue by moving collection online and fired underperforming officials. As president, his ministers have tackled reform of state enterprises such as PT Pertamina and sought to cut through red tape by jumping fences to bust illegal business and burning foreign fishing boats caught without permits.

‘Some Ideas’

“He has some ideas about what to do and has some hands-on experience,” said Edward Aspinall, a professor of politics at the Australian National University in Canberra. “I think that is much better than we’ve seen in the past of any recent presidents.”

Root-and-branch reform of the bureaucracy is unrealistic and any approach will need to be piecemeal, Aspinall said.

“The bureaucracy, despite decentralization, in many ways is still a very centralized institution,” he said. “Which has been a big problem in fact — this stultifying, inflexibility of so many bureaucratic procedures. It means there is a lot of inflexibility in terms of adapting to local circumstances.”

Ministry Letter

The matrix of departments involved in an airline flight permit is shown by a transport ministry letter dated Oct. 24, sent to AirAsia Indonesia’s president director, listing its schedules in an attachment.

The letter, seen by Bloomberg News and stating the permitted days for flight 8501 did not include Sundays, was copied to the head of Surabaya airport, the operations director at one of the state airport companies that runs the Surabaya airport, the Air Force, the head of Indonesia’s slot coordinator, and the transport ministry’s representative at Surabaya airport.

AirAsia “clearly” breached its route permit, according to Djoko Murjatmodjo, director-general for air aviation at the transport ministry. After a probe of all airlines, 61 flight violations were found including by Lion Air and PT Garuda Indonesia, the transport minister said on Jan 9.

‘A Mess’

AirAsia Indonesia Chief Executive Officer Sunu Widyatmoko confirmed the suspension of the route license and said the carrier will cooperate with an investigation, according to comments made at a press conference broadcast on local television Jan. 3. The company won’t issue a statement until the results of the government review are announced, he said.

Indonesia’s aviation bureaucracy was even worse before the development of a national slot coordinator in 2011, said Hemi Pamuraharjo, the head of the slot coordinator, which brought together officials from different departments to distribute flight times for the country’s main airports.

“It was a mess,” said Pamuraharjo in an interview. “It was full at certain hours and empty at other hours, so the airport and air traffic control were overwhelmed.”

A bureaucratic mistake is not generally the fault of one person — it will involve individuals in powerful roles in state institutions as well as lower-level staff who just want to keep their jobs, said Sukarsono from Binus University.

‘Communal Nature’

“The communal nature of Indonesian society permeates into these institutions, making collusive practices ingrained as ways for individuals to survive in the social situation in each department,” he said. “Corruption, syndicated irregularities, lack of real meritocracy, inertia and personalized governance in Indonesian ministries and government agencies are chronic issues.”

Indonesia ranked 107th on a list of countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2014, an improvement from 114th the previous year.

The task ahead is potentially a major headache for Jokowi, said Shinta Eka Puspasari, a political analyst at Jakarta-based security company Concord Consulting.

“The current and previous governments have repeatedly boasted that they will clean up and streamline the country’s bureaucracy,” she said. “Old ways die hard, making it even a greater challenge.”

–With assistance from Sharon Chen in Singapore and Rieka Rahadiana in Jakarta.

This article was written by Neil Chatterjee and Fathiya Dahrul from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. 

Photo Credit: Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures to the crowd during a street parade following his inauguration in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. Achmad Ibraham / Associated Press