New Paper – Mixed incentives: Adopting ICT innovations for transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption

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[Summary: critical questions to ask when planning, funding or working on ICTs for transparency and accountability]

Last year I posted some drafts of a paper I’ve been writing with Silvana Fumega at the invitation of the U4 Anti-Corruption Center, looking at the incentives for, and dynamics of, adoption of ICTs as anti-corruption tools. Last week the final paper was published in the U4 Issue series, and you can find it for download here.

In the final iteration of the paper we have sought to capture the core of the analysis in the form of a series of critical questions that funders, planners and implementers of anti-corruption ICTs can ask. These are included in the executive summary below, and elaborated more in the full paper.

Adopting ICT innovations for transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption – Executive Summary

Initiatives facilitated by information and communication technology (ICT) are playing an increasingly central role in discourses of transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption. Both advocacy and funding are being mobilised to encourage governments to adopt new technologies aimed at combating corruption. Advocates and funders need to ask critical questions about how innovations from one setting might be transferred to another, assessing how ICTs affect the flow of information, how incentives for their adoption shape implementation, and how citizen engagement and the local context affect the potential impacts of their use.

ICTs can be applied to anti-corruption efforts in many different ways. These technologies change the flow of information between governments and citizens, as well as between different actors within governments and within civil society. E?government ICTs often seek to address corruption by automating processes and restricting discretion of officials. However, many contemporary uses of ICTs place more emphasis on the concept of transparency as a key mechanism to address corruption. Here, a distinction can be made between technologies that support “upward transparency,” where the state gains greater ability to observe and hear from its citizens, or higher-up actors in the state gain greater ability to observe their subordinates, and “downward transparency,” in which “the ‘ruled’ can observe the conduct, behaviour, and/or ‘results’ of their ‘rulers’” (Heald 2006). Streamlined systems that citizens can use to report issues to government fall into the former category, while transparency portals and open data portals are examples of the latter. Transparency alone can only be a starting point for addressing corruption, however: change requires individuals, groups, and institutions who can access and respond to the information.

In any particular application of technology with anti-corruption potential, it is important to ask:

  • What is the direction of the information flow: from whom and to whom?
  • Who controls the flow of information, and at what stages?
  • Who needs to act on the information in order to address corruption?

Different incentives can drive government adoption of ICTs. The current wave of interest in ICT for anti-corruption is relatively new, and limited evidence exists to quantify the benefits that particular technologies can bring in a given context. However, this is not limiting enthusiasm for the idea that governments, particularly developing country governments, can adopt new technologies as part of open government and anti-corruption efforts. Many technologies are “sold” on the basis of multiple promised benefits, and governments respond to a range of different incentives. For example, governments may use ICTs to:

  • Improve information flow and government efficiency, creating more responsive public institutions, supporting coordination.
  • Provide open access to data to enable innovation and economic growth, responding to claims about the economic value of open data and its role as a resource for private enterprise.
  • Address principal-agent problems, allowing progressive and reformist actors within the state to better manage and regulate other parts of the state by detecting and addressing corruption through upward and downward transparency.
  • Respond to international pressure, following the trends in global conversations and pressure from donors and businesses, as well as the availability of funding for pilots and projects.
  • Respond to bottom-up pressure, both from established civil society and from an emerging global network of technology-focussed civil society actors. Governments may do this either as genuine engagement or to “domesticate” what might otherwise be seen as disruptive innovations.

In supporting ICTs for anti-corruption, advocates and donors should consider several key questions related to incentives:

  • What are the stated motivations of government for engaging with this ICT?
  • What other incentives and motivations may be underlying interest in this ICT?
  • Which incentives are strongest? Are any of the incentives in conflict?
  • Which incentives are important to securing anti-corruption outcomes from this ICT?
  • Who may be motivated to oppose or inhibit the anti-corruption applications of this ICT?

The impact of ICTs for anti-corruption is shaped by citizen engagement in a local context. Whether aimed at upward or downward transparency, the successful anti-corruption application of an ICT relies upon citizen engagement. Many factors affect which citizens can engage through technology to share reports with government or act upon information provided by government. ICTs that worked in one context might not achieve the same results in a different setting (McGee and Gaventa 2010). The following questions draw attention to key aspects of context:

  • Who has access to the relevant technologies? What barriers of connectivity, literacy, language, or culture might prevent a certain part of the population from engaging with an ICT innovation?
  • What alternative channels (SMS, offline outreach) might be required to increase the reach of this innovation?
  • How will the initiative close the feedback loop? Will citizens see visible outcomes over the short or long term that build rather than undermine trust?
  • Who are the potential intermediary groups and centralised users for ICTs that provide upward or downward transparency? Are both technical and social intermediaries present? Are they able to work together?

Towards sustainable and effective anti-corruption use of ICTs. As Strand (2010) argues, “While ICT is not a magic bullet when it comes to ensuring greater transparency and less corruption . . . it has a significant role to play as a tool in a number of important areas.” Although taking advantage of the multiple potential benefits of open data, transparency portals, or digitised communication with government can make it easier to start a project, funders and advocates should consider the incentives for ICT adoption and their likely impact on how the technology will be applied in practice. Each of the questions above is important to understanding the role a particular technology might play and the factors that affect how it is implemented and utilised in a particular country.

 

You can read the full paper here.

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