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Technology for Transparency Review, Part II

This is the second of a three-part series that aims to add more context to the case studies and project listings on the Technology for Transparency Network. You can find part one here.

Over at the Technology for Transparency Network we have already documented 30 technology projects that promote transparency, accountability, and civic engagement, but we still have yet to clearly define each of those concepts and explain in detail why they are valued in bringing about good governance and a healthy society.

Why Transparency?

When we discuss transparency, we are generally referring to published information about government processes, budgets, and elected officials. There are also other projects, such as CorpWatch, Publish What You Pay, and Sourcemap that aim to publish more private sector information that is also in the public's interest.

Sometimes this information is made available by governments themselves. For example, in June, 2002 then-President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, signed his country's first freedom of information law which requires government agencies to publish in a routine and accessible manner all information concerning their daily functions, budgets, operations, staff, salaries, internal reports, and the awarding of contracts and concessions. (A clear analysis of the law was published by Kate Doyle the day it was passed. John Ackerman has published a three-year evaluation of Mexico's implementation of the law in comparison to similar freedom of information initiatives around the world.)

Many times, however, governments don't want to publish information about their activities and budgets because it invites criticism and could expose corrupt behavior. In some of these countries citizens have begun publishing that information for themselves. Ory Okolloh, the co-founder of Mzalendo, tells us that the project began in 2006 when Kenyan MP's demanded that the Parliament website be shut down to prevent public access to their CV's. Concerned Kenyan citizens then began attending Parliament sessions in order to publish their observations and help build an online database of legislative information. Similarly, Mumbai Votes collects and publishes information about the criminal records of public officials and election candidates.

Often times we find that governments do in fact publish information about their activities and spending, but they do so in ways that are not easily accessible or comprehensible. For example, the municipal government of Tel Aviv publishes their budget each year as a long, detailed PDF document. All of the information is there, but it is published in a way so that citizens cannot easily understand, visualize, and analyze their government's spending decisions. The team behind “Our Budget“, therefore, used a combination of optical character recognition (OCR) technology and human verification to convert the data to spreadsheet format and use online tools to visualize and analyze the city's spending. In Argentina all political parties are required to publicly disclose the campaign contributions they received at least ten days prior to voting day. However, once again these parties publish the information in long PDF reports that obscure the relationships between money and politics in electoral campaigns. Dinero y Política is an attempt to present that same information using interactive visualizations that clearly compare and contrast campaign contributions by district, political party, and industry. In Kenya, Budget Tracking Tool takes the budgets of federally funded, local development projects, which are buried deep down in government web pages, and presents them in a single database where users can leave comments about the progress, impact, and efficiency of the projects. (So far, few have.)

Why Civic Participation?

Does transparency lead to accountability? If citizens have more information about the activities of their government, and more access to that information, then will public officials be compelled to perform their jobs more competently? Will citizens demand that their input be taken into consideration in the shaping and enforcement of policy decisions? Recently, some scholars and observers are casting doubt on that long-held assumption. “Transparency mobilizes the power of shame,” writes Jonathan Fox, “yet the shameless may not be vulnerable to public exposure. Truth often fails to lead to justice.” In a podcast interview earlier this year with Fabiano Angelico of Transparência Brasil, he echoes Fox's argument, claiming that Brazilian politicians who have been repeatedly outed as corrupt are still re-elected, often times because of their corruption. In such cases Angelico advocates that special, appointed judges with proven track records should bar repeatedly corrupt politicians from running for office. This challenges classical notions of liberal democracy: that citizens should ultimately hold their leaders accountable by supporting or removing them from office on election day. But Guillermo O'Donnell supports Angelico's proposal, noting that modern democracies require both “vertical accountability”, as in elections, and “horizontal accountability”, such as inter-governmental regulatory agencies that are empowered to sanction politicians that don't follow the law.

Another example of transparency failing to lead to accountability can be found in Liberia where President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2005, modeled after a similar post-Apartheid truth commission in South Africa. The TRC is very much an agent of horizontal accountability, tasked with investigating and publishing information related to more than 20 years of civil conflict in the country, and sanctioning elected officials who were criminally involved. In June 2009 the TRC issued its final report, which named 50 individuals – including Johnson-Sirleaf – who should be barred from public office for 30 years because of their direct involvement in the country's civil war. President Johnson-Sirleaf, however, remains in power, ignoring the recommendations of the TRC while implementing her own transparency and anti-corruption legislation. Despite her controversial past, Johnson-Sirleaf is still seen by many as a strong leader with a strong international profile who can help Liberia return to peace and democracy.

Most researchers and observers do agree that greater transparency will not lead to increased accountability unless proactive civic engagement is shaped around the information that is published. Several of the projects we've documented aim to use social networks to bring about this engagement. #InterNetnecesario in Mexico, for example, used a combination of Twitter, blog posts, and media outreach to put pressure on Mexican legislators to eliminate a three percent tax on internet access that was passed without the the media or civil society's consultation. It is a classic example of transparency plus civic participation leading to accountability. Mexican Twitter user Alejandro Pisanty published information about the newly passed law that was not formerly available. A decentralized, online protest then took place using Twitter, blogs which acted as filters and added context, and email petitions to Mexican senators. The Mexican Chamber of Deputies soon realized the size and strength of the opposition to the tax and invited representatives of the online protest into the Chamber to make their arguments against the tax, which they had been rehearsing online over the previous few weeks. However, #InternetNecesario has also (so far) proved to be a temporary phenomenon that in no way builds systematic processes to continually promote transparency or to hold leaders accountable in the future. Cuidemos El Voto offers an example of a more sustained project that aims to prevent electoral misconduct – and specifically the buying of voters – during federal and local elections. By partnering with the Office of the Special Prosecutor, which was established in 2002 to document past human rights abuses, Cuidemos El Voto attracted official federal endorsement of the voter misconduct they documented. It is difficult, however, to measure the impact of making more visible the buying of votes by politicians and political parties and we have yet to see an example of a candidate or party who was barred from office for electoral misconduct that was reported on a website like Cuidemos el Voto.

Other project leaders were skeptical that increased civic discussion will ultimately lead toward improved governance. Vivek Gilani of Mumbai Votes says that online discussions tend to be rooted in personal opinion and gossip whereas his project aims to provide readers with crisp, clear assessment based on facts. He does not wish to provide users with a space to participate, but rather a resource to become better informed in order to vote for the most qualified candidates.

How to Bring About Accountability?

A number of websites we've reviewed function as portals where citizens can list their complaints – in general about their community, and specifically related to their government's administration of their community – to put pressure on the government to be more responsive to their needs. Examples include Ishki in Jordan, Kiirti in India, and Penang Watch in Malaysia. The varying goals and strategies of these projects point to a distinction that Andreas Schedler makes between two different dimensions of accountability: on the one hand, the capacity or the right to demand answers (“answerability”) and, on the other hand, the capacity to sanction. Of course, as grassroots projects, none of the websites we reviewed are empowered with any official capacity to sanction. But several projects do seek answerability in a variety of ways.

Ishki was started by four Jordanian technologists who were tired of hearing the same complaints muttered over and over again without any action or plan for action. They created a website to collect citizen complaints against the public and private sector as a way to better understand and visualize the most common complaints in Jordanian society. Their strategy is then to work with mainstream media organizations – newspapers and radio stations – to create stories about recurring complaints with the hope that increased coverage in the media will put pressure on public officials to respond. In this sense, Ishki serves as a community filter between internet users at large and mainstream media looking for interesting watchdog stories to report on. Users can also submit and sign petitions, though the most recent petition was posted two months ago. So far we have no examples of public officials responding to complaints or petitions that originated on the website.

In India, Kiirti takes a slightly different approach from Ishki. Rather than relying on print and broadcast media as an instrument to put pressure on public officials, they send emails directly to the relevant agencies in major Indian cities to ask them to follow up on the complaints submitted to Kiirti. Founder Selvam Velmurugan says that a streetlight was repaired and a mud path was paved because of complaints submitted to Kiirti. It might seem strange that submitting a complaint to a website which is then relayed to the proper agency is more effective than submitting the complaint directly to the agency itself in the first place. It certainly isn't more efficient. But perhaps the public visibility of such complaints – and the responses by officials to those complaints – is an incentive for public officials to react. They are therefore able to show not only the demand for their work, but also their responsiveness.

In northwestern Malaysia, Penang Watch takes the accountability agenda one step further with a series of steps to communicate with – and then harass – city officials until citizen complaints are answered. Complaints submitted to PenangWatch.net are first verified by a team of volunteers, and then forwarded to the relevant authority and/or individual to answer or resolve the complaint. If there is no response within a week or two then a reminder is sent out. If the complaint is still not dealt with after two more weeks then a profile of the complaint is featured on the website and the negligent agency/individual is “named and shamed” on the website, and via emails to all council departments and media organizations. Project coordinator Ong Boon Keong says that “roughly 300 complaints are submitted through Penang Watch per year” and that so far they have “been able to settle 50 percent of submitted complaints.” Illegal shop houses in Penang's UNESCO World Heritage site have been shut down because of complaints submitted to the website.

Working With, Not Against, Government

Penang Watch coordinator Ong Boon Keong is eager to point out that the website aims to improve the local government's performance by “providing it with both positive and negative feedback.” Some observers, such as Archon Fung, worry that that the adversarial nature of many transparency and accountability websites erodes trust in governments and institutions, and presents the government as more inefficient and wasteful than it really is. Others say that a constant barrage of reporting about scandals desensitizes people to actual instances of government corruption. There are even suggestions that in countries that are new democracies, watchdog reporting can lead to dissatisfaction with democracy itself and lead to riots and chaos.

The effect of governmental transparency that is about accountability may be simply to make that problem worse, to further de-legitimize government, because what the transparency system is doing is helping people catch government making mistakes. That's good. You do want to catch government making mistakes. But you want transparency and information systems that also highlight when government is doing a good job.

Much of the current activity around governmental transparency is like creating a big Amazon rating system for government that only allows one- or two-star ratings. But that's not necessarily the case. You could also construct governmental transparency systems that provide the full five-star range.

Indeed, we have found many websites that strive to highlight the worst actions of corrupt officials, but few if any that reward effective performance and clean track records. In the future it is recommended that transparency and accountability websites strike a balance between criticizing poor government performance and celebrating that which is worth duplicating.

Accountability Verus Self-Governance

The thirty case studies we have collected so far illustrate both the potential and the extreme difficulty in bringing about accountability (either answerability or sanctions) by shaping civic engagement about public information. But, then again, accountability isn't the only stated objective of several of the projects we've reviewed. In addition to demanding better performance from government, platforms like Cidade Democrática can also facilitate better community self-governance that does not rely on public officials or understaffed agencies. Like other complaint websites we have reviewed, Cidade Democrática enables Brazilian citizens to list problems related to their municipality. Other users are then encouraged to list potential solutions to the problems and draft strategies and action plans. So far successful solutions have depended on government involvement, but in the future one can envision that communal gardens, walking paths, and even recycling programs can all be coordinated by citizens without government involvement.

Similarly, we are told by Map Kibera co-founder Mikel Maron that a World Bank study found that Kibera residents pay on average ten times more for water than the average person in a wealthy Nairobi neighborhood with municipally supplied, metered water service. Voice of Kibera could be used as a platform to petition government and tribal leaders to enact measures that bring down the cost of water. However, it could also be used as a visualization of daily water costs as an incentive to bring new suppliers into the neighborhood which would increase competition and lower prices. In other words, these platforms can be used by citizens to put pressure on their governments, but they can also be used by citizens to directly improve their communities without depending on public officials.

5 comments

  • This is an excellent overview as it provides the roots, context and some impact of such initiatives. I see from this post that probably a good number of the transparency projects are started by individuals and civil society which basically serves as a watchdog for the public authorities. As I read through, it appears sustenance of such projects seems to be left in the air. I wish you could possibly have commented on the sustenance or indeed lifespan of the reviewed tech for transparency projects.

  • […] and participation are commonly attached as the key elements of governance. These elements function interdependently to ensure the sound development of a […]

  • Georg Neumann

    This post really captures very nicely the relationship between transparency, accountability and civic engagement in governance. It is great to see that with simple ideas and online projects, change can be achieved! One of the points that should be highlighted here again is that all the projects presented were developed in the country, using technology that did empower citizens to take initiative and action.

    I also would like to underline the point you are making on the need for positive incentives vs a tendency to highlight negative action. I believe that’s why rankings are so successful. Everyone wants to be number 1!

    The phenomenon is also well known in media theory: Why are only bad news good news? It is because they are not “normal” and therefore worth reporting on. The concept of “normal” of course implies the existing of standards and needs to be seen in a cultural perspective. From this perspective, I think it is actually a positive sign that unethical and corrupt behaviour of government officials is being reported on increasingly! It means that higher standards of transparency and good governance are being set!

  • […] government accountability in some cases, their projects are still often underutilized. In his review of the second round of Technology for Transparency Network case studies, David Sasaki writes that […]

  • […] tracks civic engagement technoloy worldwide, and asked a couple of questions he’s already discussing online: what are the role and limits of technology in shaping government transparency? Why good efforts […]

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