Fighting corruption together

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

By Fabrizio Scrollini*

The expansion of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) around the world is an opportunity to establish dialogue between government and citizens to fight corruption better. But can these platforms be effective? In this work supported by the OGP Multiple Donor Trust Fund (MDTF) managed by the World Bank, we explore together with a consortium of partner organizations led by the Open Data Charter, how opening up data can help fight corruption in developing countries.

Background

Open government platforms have been essential instruments in the evolution of a new type of governance (Ramírez Alujas 2019) in the member countries of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). These spaces have allowed a global experiment where citizens and government have a dialogue and, in some cases, co-create or co-produce solutions for various public problems. These spaces have also had their share of simulation and, at times, have led to commitments being sterile avenues in terms of social or political change.

One of the most complex areas to tackle in these spaces is corruption. Corruption is a global problem that affects rich and emerging countries alike, but it has particularly dramatic costs for the developing world. There are multiple approaches to face this phenomenon that is multi-causal, complex, and costly for the countries. A traditional approach is to assume that more transparency is less corruption. Although the assumption seems to be true for developed societies, there is evidence that transparency alone does not seem to be sufficient to control corruption or generate greater trust in public institutions (Bahur and Grimes, 2017).

Horizontal accountability tools (judicial branches of government, prosecutors, audit offices) are crucial in this process, and, in general, they are actors that do not always participate in OGP processes. On the other hand, technological innovation (particularly the development of digital government platforms) brings with it the promise (and in some cases evidence, Sequeira 2016) of reducing certain types of corruption.

In our experience, countries face problems in understanding how open government processes can collaborate in the fight against corruption. Is it designing better rules to fight corruption? Is it favoring the release of information that others will use for detection, and if so, what is that information? At the same time, Latin American countries face institutional fragmentation and lack of capacity of the agencies dedicated to fighting corruption. This limits the ability to implement any commitment that is adopted.

The problem

Is there still room for transparency approaches? Is transparency still a good disinfectant? Part of the hypothesis of this project is to understand how national governments can better share information to prevent corruption. There is an opportunity to take advantage of the wave of data openness and the technologies that have been developed in that environment (visualization, analysis, use) to better equip citizens and government itself to detect potential corrupt behaviors.

But to put that hypothesis into action, we require something generally forgotten: consider data as an infrastructure that enables investigations and understanding of how corruption works. As Armando Navarro, the Colombian government’s point of contact for OGP, told us:

“Open data allows us to give the citizens tools and instruments to carry out an informed social control of our government.”

So, what data should we make available, and who should access it? Does it make sense to do it, or is it just a fad? What effects will it have? These questions run counter to the view that democracies must operate transparently, and that transparency in the digital age is something to consider from the start. Beyond the debate, there are examples such as Ojo con mi Pisto, which monitors public contracts, or contracts from PODER that indicate that access to public data is not in vain.

In this context, and thanks to the collaboration of the governments of Colombia and Chile, we decided to explore how OGP processes could contribute to building the foundations for a data infrastructure to fight corruption. Ahead of the co-creation of these two country’s Action Plans, we explored some of the questions above in a workshop in Cali with representatives of multi-stakeholder forums of each country, both from government and civil society organizations

First impressions

So how to design commitments that allow the construction of the necessary data infrastructure to fight corruption? We did not find the exact answer, but a series of recommendations emerged (and can be found in this report):

  1. Focus on concrete problems: Corruption is a broad topic, and it is convenient to focus on one specific aspect that allows building a commitment that leads to tangible results, using the SMART criteria.
  2. Bringing data stewards to the table: Due to the complexity of data that are required in these types of commitments, the actors who are responsible for data management must participate in some way, as well as organizations that use that data and can add value to it.
  3. Strengthening political will: These type of commitments require clear incentives for those actors who have data and not necessarily the intention to share it, or who have had a tradition of keeping that data safe.
  4. Graduality of openness: Data release is welcomed generally, but databases related to corruption issues must be studied in detail, particularly in terms of transparency and privacy. It is particularly important to include the quality, type, and disaggregation required for its effective use.
  5. Collaboration in the co-creation process. The co-creation process is subject to various pressures of time and attention by those who participate in open government processes. Generating co-creation spaces with sufficient time and qualified participation on this topic seems essential for the development of promising commitments.
  6. Scope of commitment. OGP commitments have specific timeframes and metrics that allow them to be monitored. The mere fact of publishing data today cannot be defined as an ambitious commitment, but its connection with other types of activity can. Hence, it is highly recommended to identify how exactly the commitment collaborates with aspects of prevention, detection, or fight against corruption.
  7. Consider existing tools. The Anti-corruption Open Up Guide of the Open Data Charter is a tool that could serve as a guide for drafting data-driven anti-corruption commitments.
  8. Consider the technical capabilities of the teams in both design and implementation of the action plans, and — if necessary — strengthen them with expert support.

The fight against corruption is complex, and more than one approach is needed to solving a systemic problem. Data is an ingredient but not the only solution. Carrying out participatory exercises to develop commitments and action plans among stakeholders can be a way to highlight the issue, seek and test new tools or approaches, and generally build capacity in society and government around this issue. Yet this must be complemented with learning strategies during its implementation phase and, eventually, accountability.

*Fabrizio is Executive Director of the Latin American Initiative for Open Data, which leads this projects in Latin America.This blog was written with inputs from Agustina De Luca and Natalia Carfi from the Open Data Charter, and Jorge Florez from Global Integrity.

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Collaborating with governments and organisations to open up data for pay parity, climate action and combatting corruption.

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Open Data Charter

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Collaborating with governments and organisations to open up data for pay parity, climate action and combatting corruption.

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