Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Corruption and Transparency: Who the Data Revolution is Forgetting
By Jenny Hyde
December 22, 2015
Corruption reporting websites are gaining popularity. In India, ipaidabribe.com lets users report when, where, and under what circumstances they paid a bribe throughout their day. In the Philippines, citizens can upload data on the condition of services and facilities in their public schools to checkmyschool.org. While the contexts for these websites vary, they all share a common goal: allowing cases of corruption to go public. Corruption is a very real problem that hinders the potential of social programs and civil society groups in every country. Corruption reporting websites, despite their limits, get to the heart of the problem.
The data revolution has, for better or for worse, changed the way we look at civic participation. If there’s anything the Arab Spring taught us, it’s that governments around the world need to rethink citizen engagement. Transparency and accountability are taking their place as societal norms when we think about the way states are governed. People are growing tired of the gap between halls of power and the needs voiced around the kitchen table, making the ability to be heard on online platforms increasingly attractive.
These new online tools are indeed interesting and innovative. However, before we hail the data revolution as the key to ending everyday corruption, we need to ask a few important questions about who might be getting left behind. Access to online platforms at the most basic level requires three things: technology, technological know-how, and time. However, access to each of these things is heavily dependent on one’s level of income. This means that for most of the world’s poor, corruption reporting websites are out of reach, consequently impeding their ability to participate in these new platforms.
I am not suggesting that the data revolution is a step in the wrong direction. I believe it is changing the way we view freedom of speech and democracy for the better. Imagine the power such a website could have in a new democracy that would allow posting of election corruption statistics, or a site for communication about the prevalence of sexual violence in a civil war zone. I do worry, however, that the vulnerable and marginalized could be shut out from yet another discussion of public need.
Swati Ramanathan, founder of ipaidabribe.com, said, “There is so little risk to being corrupt in our country and so high a reward… the moment you change the equation and you make it riskier, the reward becomes less. You make it riskier by making it public.”
How, then, can we take this brilliant theory and make it so that even the most marginalized persons can feel like they have the opportunity to combat corruption?
One thing is certain: nothing can be done unless citizens feel a sense of empowerment that the things they say or the things they do will have some real difference in the long run. A new World Bank publication, Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap? wisely states, “We have to go beyond listening and support governments to build institutional systems that allow policy makers and project teams to better incorporate citizen voices in decision-making processes and thus to increase the responsiveness of government programs to people’s real needs.”
The data revolution is a powerful tool, so powerful that Chinese Authorities shut down a host of similar sites that tried to go live within its borders. Harnessing and encouraging use of such tools is very important, as is finding creative ways for those lacking time, money, and technological skill to participate. We must continue to creatively envision a way to empower everyday people in the fight against corruption. If public corruption indexes can transform their accessibility in such a way that more and more people can participate, we will not only mobilize more voices, but gain a better representation of the data available.
A version of this article first appeared on SharedJustice.org, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice.
- Jenny Hyde is a recent graduate of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, DC.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”