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Technology against corruption: beyond apps and social media

This blog post looks at government use of technology for integrity in the areas of procurement, judicial systems, customs controls, voter registration and tax filing.

Despite a fair amount of hype, there is only scattered and mixed evidence to show that snazzy apps and crowd sourced anti-corruption initiatives are having any measurable impact in the fight against corruption. One area that gets less media attention but may be significantly more transformative is how the use of technologies by governments can help address corruption.

In the past year the Transparency International Help Desk, an on-demand research service for subscribing development agencies and TI chapters, has received a number of queries on this topic. Here is a quick run through of interesting insights gleaned from the helpdesk research as it touches on government use of technology for integrity in the areas of procurement, judicial systems, customs controls, voter registration and tax filing.

E-procurement: reducing corruption risks

Electronic procurement, arguably the earliest and most salient area for curbing corruption through technology is increasingly proving its mettle - but also showing its limitations.

Case evidence reviewed by the Help Desk team finds e-procurement-related reductions in arbitrary procedures and gatekeeping by officials in Andhra Pradesh, cost savings in Chile to the tune of  US$150 million and a tripling of average number of bidders per tender in Albania. These are all indicators that also point to some reduction in related corruption risks. 

E-procurement in Georgia stands out as a particularly innovative and transparent system. It not only includes participation by civil society and publishes its decisions online but it also published the complaints process for rejected bidders.

Yet, the evidence reviewed shows the many challenges that remain for e-procurement. For example,  governments  under-utilize the opportunities to scan procurement data for collusion and other corruption red flags; typically they do not make the information available in ways that would facilitate civil society monitoring, and the need for pro-actively encouraging more competition is a concern. In Slovakia, more than 40 per cent of tenders only attract one bidder. And despite the new quality of transparency that e-procurement can bring there are  persistently large areas that defy electronic disclosure. In Albania a quarter of all procurement deals are not published and are negotiated, rather than tendered and in Georgia more than 40 per cent of procurement is estimated to be done outside the electronic bidding system.

Going electronic is a useful step, but not a magic bullet for fixing all corruption related to procurement.

Judicial Integrity

A query on innovations in promoting judicial integrity has shed light on interesting initiatives that not only embrace electronic case handling systems to reduce backlogs but also deploy technology in other ways.

These include a system to  make judicial service and pricing information available via SMS to help citizens assert their rights (India), a way to randomly assign cases electronically, in order to reduce corruption opportunities (Montenegro and many others) and a way to enable case tracking by the broader public to strengthen judicial accountability (Romania).  

Unfortunately, there is little follow up research to measure the impact of these interesting applications. It would be valuable to know if satisfaction levels or perceptions of corruption about the judiciary markedly changed with the introduction of e-judiciary initiatives, clearly a subject for further research.

Many other green shoots – and the imperative of broader reforms

Help Desk insights also show that governments continue to deploy technology in ever new areas with the purpose of tackling fraud and corruption.  In Benin and Ghana, for example, the government has introduced electronic filing systems to promote integrity for customs functions, often areas where kickbacks and facilitation payments are rife. In both countries exporters and importers can file customs forms on-line but they say that the systems are still excessively cumbersome and complex, again pointing to the fact that technology can only be part of a solution but not the only ingredient.

That’s the same in other areas too. The TI Help Desk also identified interesting cases of online voter registers in Serbia to help combat election fraud and online and even mobile tax filing options from Kenya to Tunisia to Rwanda.  The bottom line is that technology can make a difference but the research also shows that technology cannot be a substitute for essential policy upgrades. Technology comes into its own when embedded in broader reforms and when it is designed to empower civil society. Governments that wish to go beyond technology for window-dressing should take note.

* Dieter Zinnbauer works on emerging issues for TI and maintains a blog that collects empirical evidence about how governments use technology to tackle corruption. 

Author : Dieter Zinnbauer

29 Jan 2015

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