Technology, and specifically open data, may be the most promising lead to fighting corruption in government today.
The rhetoric of corruption du jour often concerns imagery of “light” and “darkness.”This argues that to limit corruption, limit the amount of time that politicians, policy makers, and figures of power are able to spend in shady backrooms away from the public eye. This is a figurative way of understanding the problems of bribery and fraud, but it can be surprisingly literal as well.
Take, for instance, recent reforms in Albania for ending corruption. In the capital of Tirana, citizens could choose to wait in one of two long queues at the city reception hall, or bypass these by bribing one of the near-invisible clerks taking documents from a shadowy cubby hole.
While the city replaced the clerks many times, the corruption prevailed. The former mayor, Edi Rama, argues vehemently that the problem was not one of morals but of opportunity; a clerk from any other nationality would become corrupt as easily in a system so broken.
In this instance, Tirana was able to install a modern building with highly visible clerks, and the corruption sharply declined. What Rama used to achieve his goal was a physical change in the way that citizens approached authority figures, and it worked.
The principle behind open data follows the same plan. Alter how citizens interact with government by eliminating the shadowy corners, in this case by putting data online.
Recently, there have been huge technological initiatives used to catalyze citizens for the future and to expose past corruption. In a recent CGE article Sean Kibbee suggests Hackathons as one approach. “Hackathons” are social justice events which aim to create usable software to publish government statistics and inspire local citizens to map and report corruption. Their initiatives are astoundingly innovative and effective. These projects have happened worldwide – in India, in Kenya, and even in Montreal this past November.
Says a Quebec designer who participated: “The more you shine a light, the less you can keep things hidden.”
Transparency International, an international anti-corruption organization, has recently ranked Canada 9th of 176 on its Corruptions Perceptions Index. This is above the USA (17th), but far below what Canada could achieve. After all, governments are continually responding to and making reforms in response to allegations of corruption; see the recent Feb. 5 amendments to the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act (CFPOA). Negative public perception is not what it should be, nor is it unfounded.
However, this could be changed by bringing to light what has gone wrong, and by strengthening Canada’s future open data initiatives.
In Tirana, the problem was physical, and corruption could be limited by literally letting the sunshine in. Technology can allow government to do the same: by design, open data includes no shadowy corners. By its nature, software includes nothing that is not built in and accessible to public scrutiny. Instead, what technology is capable of creating is a digital space of interaction between citizen and government with no hidden corners, purely exposed to the sunlight.
Open data is not a panacea, and it has a long way yet to go, but from a physical, design perspective it may be the best way for government and citizens both to fight corruption today.