Digitisation for anti-corruption;
Issues and implication for economic development
The Digitisation Insurgency is contributing positively to the growth and development of nations across the globe. Whereas it used to mainly affect the development of industrialised economies, the last decade has experienced a momentous speed-up in digitisation around the world. According to a report released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2017, about 48% of the global population currently use the internet, while a significant proportion of the populations in developing nations own mobile phones, many of which are smartphones. Digitisation has the potential not only to transform the daily lives of people but also to revolutionise societal relations and the delivery of public services. As such it provides opportunities for economic development. Digitisation can provide governments with options on how to leverage Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for the prevention, detection, and prosecution of corrupt activities in their countries.
In the arena of anti-corruption and good governance support, digitisation has become progressively essential. Over the past two decades, a wide array of projects, programs, and policies on different levels of governance have attempted to use digitisation for this purpose. This has affected the work of all actors (such as State Institutions, Civil Society Organisations, Civic Movements, and the media, as well as the private sector) recognised as key in the fight against corruption. Digitisation mostly works across different stakeholders and aims to synchronize or bring together the activities of these different groups.
The digitization of anti-corruption strategies has already been a topic for studies for the last one and a half-decade. Some of the studies have described a variety of projects funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) which use digitisation to support transparency in the delivery of public services. Recent empirical works have focused on this issue by citing transparency as the principal mechanism behind the successful use of digitisation to fight corruption. Further studies, such have also looked at the digitisation of public service delivery as a means of reducing corruption opportunities, as well as at the role of ICT tools in supporting the work of civil society actors through mobilisation and promotion of public participation.
Contributing to the discussions on this issue, this article will thus outline four digitization mechanisms in efforts to contain corruption: digitisation of public services, upward transparency, downward transparency, and mobilisation. Additionally, it will also look at the emergence of block chain technology as a potential lever in anti-corruption work. The general digitisation of public services has been advanced in many countries around the world. It is primarily driven by the intent to increase efficiency in public service delivery. E-government tools can decrease waiting times, make some public services available around-the-clock and, in many cases, enable remote services and, crucially, reduce costs. They are also put forward as an anti-corruption instrument as they reduce direct contact points between citizens and public officials. Citizens can file motions, submit petitions or apply for public services online, using personal computers or e-government terminals in government institution buildings or premises. This reduces opportunities for corruption and favouritism by public officials. Some quantitative and qualitative studies have indicated that e-government is undeniably effective in reducing corruption. While the positive impacts of e-government as an anti-corruption tool are thus well-established, the fundamental mechanism is not just the reduction of opportunities. E-government also makes it easier to obtain information on the performance of public officials and analyse data on public service delivery.
Digitisation is also expected to increase upward transparency. This is seen as a mechanism to increase the state’s ability to get citizen feedback and learn about the work of lower-level bureaucrats. Upward transparency, therefore, succours to senior state employees check on those in the lower ranks to ensure the wrong does not occur. It also enables governments to hear from their citizens and ask for their feedback on the performance of public services. The type of digitisation platforms that leverage upward transparency is online reporting platforms, crowdsourcing platforms, whistle blower platforms, e-government tools (including automated service and online service delivery) and other initiatives to collect citizen complaints and feedback. All of these digitization tools provide avenues for obtaining information from citizens to the government and information on lower-ranked bureaucrats to their superiors. They support not only transparency and accountability but also the participation of citizens in the governance process of their nations.
In contrast, digitisation is again expected to promote downward transparency to open up the government and provide information on its activities to the public. Citizens can thus use this data and hold public officials accountable. Digitisation tools aiming at downward transparency make use of freedom of information laws to assist citizens to request data from the government. Public officials proactively make government data accessible to the general public through transparency portals, which give access to key government documents and/or information online, and through open data portals, which provide diverse government data in open formats, making bulk-analysis of data possible. Citizens, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), and media actors can utilise information made accessible through such digitization platforms to hold governments and bureaucrats accountable. As corruption becomes harder to hide, public officials have incentives to act more scrupulously.
Furthermore, digitisation tools or platforms can also be utilised for mobilisation against corruption. Specifically, in countries with more restricted media environments, citizen and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) use different digitisation tools to provide citizens with information about government corruption and mobilise citizens to take action against the corrupt government or public officials. Social media-based initiatives and news websites (including blog sites) can share pieces of important information that often otherwise are not accessible or available to citizens. They can support the capacity of society for collective action by helping coordinate the work of different anti-corruption agencies and their initiatives and bringing together different individuals through enhanced communication and greater ease of sharing information. NGOs can use digitization platforms or tools to reach out to citizens and therefore assist in citizenry united against corruption. In sharing information and mobilising citizens, such initiatives support participation and integrity in the governance process of every nation be it developed or underdeveloped.
In recent years, several anti-corruption activists and policymakers are increasingly looking at block chain technology as a means of supporting anti-corruption campaigns and activities. A block chain is a digitisation tool that promotes higher transactional security by storing information in a digital ledger in the form of “blocks”, where each block comprises data about a transaction. Duplicates of a block chain are then stored on a large and high capacity server around the world via a decentralised, peer-to-peer network system. Through this design the copies represent a verifiable record that cannot be changed without altering subsequent blocks, thus limiting opportunities for fraud to go undetected. This robust record-keeping, as well as block chain’s decentralised nature and lack of a central authority overseeing its implementation (limiting opportunities to distort the process to serve the interests of central authority), implies it can offer a secure and trustworthy way of keeping important transaction records. This can be principally helpful in low-trust environments, which are mostly characterised by high levels of corruption. Another well-known application of block chain technology mostly reported in the literature is smart contracts, which are effective contracts that automatically execute when the pre-determined conditions agreed to by both parties are satisfied. While the use of a block chain digitisation platform or tool in anti-corruption is still in its cot, its prospective benefits have been reported to include increasing security in public procurement or land registries and securing financial transactions against fraud.
While all these digitisation platforms or tools outlined above are, in one way or another, used in the context of anti-corruption work, none of them is guaranteed to be successful without any potential setback. Digitisation tools or platforms that aim to leverage downward or upward transparency, for instance, might provide useful data that can be used to fight corruption, but they do not completely result in more accountability and an actual decrease in corruption. I admit that the relationship between transparency and accountability is not linear and is indeed rather a complex one. Accordingly, digitisation platforms or tools can only ever be one part of a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy.