Vivek Srinivasan on the role of technology in combating corruption

Drawing upon his experience with India's Right to Information movement, Vivek focused his discussion on how information and communication technology (ICT) tools could be designed and applied to strengthen people's movements to combat corruption. Of course, Vivek conceded, ICT cannot combat all kinds of corruption. These tools can be very effective, however, in combating types of corruption for which there is a paper trail attesting to something that never happened (such as the construction of a road or the provision of grain subsides or other goods).

In the past, it has been possible for members of people's movements working to combat corruption to request lists of all government programs going on in a village to monitor who received what benefits. After summing up this information over a long period and comparing notes with the villagers themselves, activists have then been able to expose inaccuracies in government records through public hearings.

Although activists can carry out this sort of fact checking without the use of advanced ICTs, the introduction of such ICTs has helped social movements work much more effectively to combat corruption. After all, an individual who goes to a government office to obtain public information will often face significant resistance. Requiring that government offices make information available online makes getting public records much easier. Additionally, cross-comparisons of data created by different government agencies (i.e. comparing ration card data against census information for each village) can be much more easily executed once this data is online.

In some cases, changing procedures can help reduce certain types of corruption. In Kathmandu, for example, public officials began to be required to wear shirts and pants with no pockets to reduce exchange of petty bribes. Creating procedures like these are very useful, Vivek emphasized, but they can also be enhanced through the use of ICTs. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for example, public managers of public works projects began to be required to send text message at 10:30 in the morning, to ensure that officials accurately reported the number of persons employed at the site. Since these messages can be sent to all interested parties, anyone can photograph the site with their cell phone to expose officials' misreporting. This example illustrates how timely verification and dissemination of information can establish whether information is being falsified.

New technologies are also enabling the reporting of new types of information. New kinds of accounting include cross-verification, biometric verification, image-based processes (i.e. video and audio), and geo-specific information (i.e. through RFID, a low cost passive electric tag). Although what you can verify (i.e. teacher presence at the school) is not always the same as the indicator that is truly important (i.e. student learning), the use of these new reporting methods can often raise the cost of cheating.

In closing, Vivek noted that unless people are mobilized, they will not do anything to combat corruption. Once systems are in place however, technology can make any mobilized groups work more effectively. To maximize the ability of activists to extract information from the grassroots level, we need new forms of accounting and dissemination that are user-centered and not divided up by governmental department. Separating implementation agencies from payment agencies will be another positive approach in the attempt to reduce corruption. As entitlement programs grow due to the increased emphasis on a rights-based approach to international development, the need to combat various kinds of corruption is growing, and the application of ICTs offers a big step forward.