ICTs and anti-corruption: exploring the incentives

[Summary: the third section from a draft U4 paper on exploring the incentives for adopting ICT innovation in the fight against corruption]

I’m currently posting draft sections of a report on ICTs and anti-corruption to invite comments before the final paper is written up in a few weeks time. If you’ve any comments on the draft, please do add them into the Google Doc draft or leave a note below. 


Although rigorous evidence for the efficacy of government-led ICTs for anti-corruption is limited (Mcgee & Gaventa, 2011) it is clear that (a) it is reasonable to expect that, well implemented and in the right context, ICTs can be an important asset in the fight against corruption; and (b) current evidence gaps concerning the role of ICT in anti-corruption are not damping enthusiasm for ICTs based anti-corruption actions by governments and civil society across the world.

By far the most common commitments made in the first round of Open Government Partnership National Action Plans were centred on e-government and open data. This provides further evidence of the extent to which transactional and transparency ICT based solutions have become a central part of the open government and anti-corruption narrative. It might also be argued that anti-corruption has also become a key part of the sales narrative for new ICTs and e-government.

The way in which ‘technology for transparency’ innovations are adopted has an impact on how effective they are likely to be, and the incentives driving adoption will inevitably shape how an innovation is applied in practice. David Heald (2006) has suggested that transparency can come in a number of forms: upwards (hierarchical relationships; when the superior can see the actions of the subordinate), downwards (when the ruled can see the behaviour/results of their rulers; agencies can see behaviour up the management chain); outwards (when agents inside an organisation can see what is happening outside it); and inwards (when those outside can observe what is happening inside the organisation). In is useful to consider for each of the different incentives that encourage a government to engage with ICTs for anti-corruption, which form of transparency it is most likely to lead to, and whether it will also enable other forms of transparency at the same time.

In the following paragraphs we consider at a broad level a range of different motivations that might drive governmental adoption of ICTs with an anti-corruption potential, with a particular focus on the incentives for developing country governments to engage. Our list is speculative, and more research is needed to fully survey and analyse the motivations and incentives driving a broad sample of developing country anti-corruption ICT adoption. This noted, amongst other reasons, governments may be motivated by:

  • An interest in the promise of e-government and open data to improve government efficiency;
  • An interest in the potential of open data as a resource for economic growth and innovation;
  • A desire to use technology to address specific principal-agent problems in the state;
  • Outside pressure from funders or the private sector, or competitive pressures to be seen to be part of a global trend;
  • Bottom-up pressure from citizens, or a desire to domesticate otherwise disruptive technologies;

These motivations are not mutually exclusive – and in many cases ICT driven open government initiatives are justified in relation to a number of these reasons at the same time. 


The Open Government Partnership declaration states that it is seeking to make “governments more transparent, responsive, accountable, and effective.” The pairing of transparency with effectiveness is a common one, often based on the idea of horizontal (outwards/inwards) transparency. In other words, the use of transparency to increase the free flow of information between different agencies and partners of the state. For example, this model is evident in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) where a strong motivation for sharing structured open data is to support improved coordination and planning between different donor agencies. Vertical downward transparency (citizens of donor and recipient countries able to see where money is spent) is, to some extents, an attractive by-product of enabling more efficient exchange of data between aid agencies and governments.

Open data has particular value as a tool to break down organisational silos. Both the UK Government and World Bank have reported that many of the hits on their public-facing open data portals have been from their own staff, accessing data they, in theory, have previously had access to, but in practice had not been able to find, get hold of or use. Contrary to the design of many e-government systems, which implement layers of access control and permissions – the move towards open data allows government departments and their boundary partners (Earl, Carden, & Smutylo, 2001) of government to interact more efficiently through flows of data. Open data is also associated with processes of standardisation, often based on open standards (Fitzgerald & Pappalardo, 2009). When different departments, agencies and governments adopt common data standards then new ways of combining data across silos are facilitated – and a more competitive market for modular tools that work with the data can be stimulated, challenging patterns of vendor lock-in that can occur with large ICT systems (Dunleavy et. al., 2006; Dunleavy & Margetts, 2004).

Many contemporary arguments concerning the potential of ICTs and open data to improve government efficiency draw heavily on references to Silicon Valley start-ups and Internet firms. Projects developing ‘feedback loop’ citizen reporting channels in particular are likely to refer to examples such as ‘Trip Adviser’ where the private sector appears at first glance to have created effective information gathering from consumers. Policies that promise to bring to a country some of the glamour and success of Silicon Valley innovation can be very appealing for political leaders in both developed and developing countries alike. However, behind the talk of efficient and effective government through technology there may also lie another agenda. Bates has argued that the UK’s open data programme represents a tool of de-regulation and privatisation of public services, by making it easier for profit-seeking firms to take on roles of the state. In ‘Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency and Participation in Practice’, Tim O’Reilly (who popularised the phrase Web 2.0 to capture the interactive possibilities of the modern Web) writes about ‘Government as a Platform’, in which the state provides basic foundations on which private innovation takes place, delivering efficient and customised services to citizens (O’Reilly, 2010). Behind ‘efficiency’ incentives of certain ICT and open government processes, there may then also lie in some cases a profit motive, encouraging certain parties to ‘sell’ the benefits of opening data in ways that will enable them to enter markets for public service provision, and where the outcomes of this for levels of corruption are likely to be determined by local contextual factors.


A related promise that can draw governments’ attention to transparency related ICTs, and open data in particular, is the idea that government data provides a raw material for innovation and economic growth. Here, ICTs are not adopted for their anti-corruption potential, though it is possible that that can be a side-benefit, as information is made available and anti-corruption innovations are theoretically enabled alongside other profit-motivated innovation. In the main, the case that open data will bring about economic growth through stimulating new economic activity remains theoretical, rather than clearly evidenced (Dekkers, Poleman, te Velde, & de Vries, 2006; Hammell, Perricos, Branch, & Lewis, 2011; Newbery, Bently, & Pollock, 2008) although the size of the market for US Weather Data and Geo data (which have both been available openly for many years) are often cited. In discussing the potential of the Kenya Open Data Initiative, the then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of ICT Dr Bitange N’Demo spoke of the potential of open data on trade to significantly stimulate better trading between African nations, leading to an economic boost for his region (Open Institute, 2012).

It has been argued that the existence of an economic argument for open data has helped sustain movements for open data following the global economic crisis, where a movement based only on transparency arguments would have stalled as governments cut back on spending (Weinstein & Goldstein, 2012). Regardless, it is important to explore whether the datasets relevant to stimulate economic activity are the same datasets that can support transparent and accountability government, and to pay close attention to how the envisaged uses for data will shape the ways in which it is provided. This issues has recently come to a head in the United Kingdom where the mechanism for engagement with government on open data release, the Open Data User Group has recently appointed a membership dominated by large private sector interests, rather than representatives of citizen groups.

Whilst these first two incentives have focussed primarily on open data, the following sections apply equally to all forms of transparency and transactional ICTs.


Principle-agent problems concern the challenge of one party (the principal) motivating and/or compelling some other party (the agent) to act in the interests of the principal, rather than in the agent’s self-interest (Eisenhardt, 1989). Principal-agent problems are the heart of many corruption situations (Azfar, 2002). For example, citizen (as principal) frequently struggle to get the government officials (as, in theory, the delegated agent of the citizens) to act in the citizen’s interest, rather than the official exploiting their power to act in their own interest and extract rents. Similarly, reforming officials inside government may struggle to control the action of their officials in the field. Transactional and transparency ICTs can all play a role in changing the balance of power within these principal-agent problems, and can offer reforming governments and officials a mechanism for addressing corrupt activity.

Governments are not monolithic. Corruption benefits certain actors in government, and not others. ICTs can be a resource that one area of government uses to secure the behaviour of another, through allowing parties outside of government to provide the scrutiny or political pressure needed to address an issue when government does not have the resource to provide that scrutiny for itself. For example, Brazilian officials recognised that they could not inspect whether funds sent to local government had reached every local area, but by publishing the information on funds allocated, they enabled citizens to act as an extra watchdog, helping them to detect potential corruption. Citizen reporting channels work on the same idea: by taking local officials out of the complaint or reporting process (where they may previously have simply ignored or lost reports of problems that would have affected their rent seeking) the principals in government are better able to control their agents.

This is perhaps the most positive anti-corruption incentive for ICT adoption. Reports on experiences in Georgia provide one example of corruption falling dramatically through state adoption of ICTs in this way, with a consequent increase in public and business confidence (Alam & Southworth, 2012). However, reformers cannot rely on ICT alone: political situations also need to be conducive to the use of the information that ICTs help to flow. The nature of ICTs introduced, and transparency mandates applied is also important to explore here. Transparency in one area of government can empower others in both positive and negative ways. For example, both the UK and China have sought to increase the transparency of local governments. This may increase citizen oversight of government, but it can also increase upwards transparency of the periphery to the centre, strengthening central government over and above local government in ways that may have political and policy consequences.


Doug Hadden of Freebalance has suggested that “transparency has become a competitive sport” (Hadden, 2013) with fragile states and emerging economies joining in a global race to adopt ICT-enabled transparency tools and platforms. The adoption of anti-corruption ICTs may then be seen as part of policy transfer and replication between states, supported by a strong global discourse. The current discourses around ICT enabled transparency and accountability may play a significant role in shaping the incentives of developing country governments. The availability of funding to invest in ICTs, the advocacy of global institutions such as the World Bank, and private philanthropists such as Omidyar Foundation, all combine to create an environment in which turning to technology is appealing, and comparatively likely to yield external funding as against some other kinds of reform. This may act to support progressive reformers inside governments, and may enable experimentation with ICTs as a useful tool in the anti-corruption toolbox.

However, the international discourse around technology for transparency also risks allowing a ‘fig leaf’ effect, in which, by introducing technology innovations, states can appear to be engaging with the transparency, accountability and anti-corruption agenda, whilst dodging substantive reforms. Publishing low-salience information with a large fanfare may be a good way for states to gain attention and initial credibility without actually facing high political costs, or actually addressing corruption. Similarly, in regimes with low state effectiveness, where corrupt activity isn’t captured in the data, or there are no balancing audit and reconciliation mechanisms such as exist in the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), then the potential credibility gain from developing a transparency initiative may outweigh the potential risks to established rent-seeking.


As with each of the incentives outlined, the last we will explore is two-edged. As we noted earlier, much of the ‘policy transfer’ around ICTs in anti-corruption has happened not at the level of states, but within civil society, and between networks of progressive technologists. Through ICT Hubs, online networks and global conferences, such as the Open Knowledge Foundation’s ‘OKFest’ and ‘Open Government Data Camp’ events, and with backing of philanthropists, such as investments enabling MySociety.org to internationalise their suite of citizen reporting channel tools such as Fix My Street, and supply their implementation in developing countries, independent actors and organised civil society have created ICT transparency tools in many developing countries (Avila, Feigenblatt, Heacock, & Heller, 2011). This has often supported the emergence of domestic campaigns for open data (albeit often centred on small groups of technologists). Established civil society groups, in some countries, have also called on governments to pursue transparency policies through portals and reporting channels.

Governments then may adopt ICTs in response to bottom up citizen and civil society pressure. This may take the form of delivering what citizens were seeking, in terms of access to information, data and feedback channels. It may also act to ‘domesticate’ the ‘disruptive innovations’ developed within civil society. For example, whilst civil society platforms for submitting RTI request such as Alaveteli make requests and replies public, government implemented online channels for RTI requests may offer less transparency. By providing a ‘competitor’ to the civil society platform, but one without certain ‘disruptive’ features of that outside tool, a states response to innovative ICTs may blunt their potential.


In this section we have taken a fairly critical and sceptical stance towards the incentives that may drive state adoption of ICTs with an anti-corruption potential. In doing so, we do not suggest that advocates of ICT enabled open government have bad incentives. Many have the very best incentives and intents for their pursuit of technology, transparency and accountability. However, we do seek to draw attention to the presence of mixed incentives in many ICT projects, and to highlight the importance of identifying which interests and incentives are stronger in any situation. This has implications for funders in considering who they back, and how they promote ICT-related innovations, carefully managing the tensions of technologies that can have many impacts, not all of which inherently challenge corruption.


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Avila, R., Feigenblatt, H., Heacock, R., & Heller, N. (2011). Global mapping of technology for transparency and accountability: New technologies.

Azfar, O. (2002). Disrupting Corruption. In A. Shah (Ed.), Performance Accountability and Combating Corruption (pp. 255–284). Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

Dekkers, M., Poleman, F., te Velde, R., & de Vries, M. (2006). MEPSIR Study – 2006.

Dunleavy, P., & Margetts, H. (2004). Government IT Performance and the Power of the IT Industry?: A Cross-National Analysis. In Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (pp. 1–42).

Dunleavy, P., Margetts, H., Bastow, S., & Tinkler, J. (2006). Digital era governance: IT corporations, the state, and E-government (p. 304). Oxford University Press, USA.

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Eisenhardt, M. (1989). Agency Theory: an Assessment and Review. The Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 57–74.

Fitzgerald, A., & Pappalardo, K. (2009). Moving Towards Open Standards. In Unlocking IP (Vol. 6). New South Wales. doi:10.2966/scrip.060209.467

Hadden, D. (2013). Sustainable Public Financial Management – Top 7 Lessons Learned at FISC7. Freebalance Blog. Retrieved from http://www.freebalance.com/blog/?p=3625

Hammell, R., Perricos, C., Branch, D., & Lewis, H. (2011). Unlocking growth: How open data creates new opportunities for the UK. Growth (Lakeland). London, UK.

Heald, D. (2006). Transparency as an instrumental value (Vol. 135, p. 59).

Mcgee, R., & Gaventa, J. (2011). Shifting Power? Assessing the Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives.

Newbery, D., Bently, L., & Pollock, R. (2008). Models of public sector information provision via trading funds.

O’Reilly, T. (2010). Government as a platform. In D. Lathrop & L. Ruma (Eds.), (1st ed.). O’Reilly Media.

Open Institute. (2012). Dr. Bitange Ndemo telling the Kenya Open Data Story on Vimeo. Kenya: Open Institute.

Weinstein, J., & Goldstein, J. (2012). The Benefits of a Big Tent: Opening Up Government in Developing Countries. UCLA Law Review Discourse, 38(2012), 38–48.


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