Using Technology to Enhance Government Transparency and Counter Corruption

In recent years, advancements in information and communication technologies (ICTs) have revolutionized processes for the exchange of information and allowed for more openness and transparency. Two key types of ICTs have had a strong impact in this regard. The first is “e-government,” which refers to the use of information technologies by government agencies with the aim of transforming relations with citizens, businesses and other arms of government. The other is the concept of crowdsourcing, which in this context involves the sharing of information based on collective intelligence and resources of the public. This form of ICT is best represented by social media – including microblogging, social networking, and wikis (websites through which users work collaboratively to build and modify content).

However, the 2016 U.S. presidential election epitomized the risks associated with the prevalence of ICTs. For example, reports emerged that Russians used Twitter bots to spread fake news through accounts disguised as midwestern Republican swing-voters. It is therefore necessary to examine the opportunities as well as the challenges associated with ICTs. More specifically, can e-government and social media enhance government transparency and tackle corruption in spite of the challenges they present?

In 2010, researchers at the University of Maryland published a widely-cited study in Government Information Quarterly titled “Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: E-government and social media as openness and anti-corruption tools for societies.” If one considers only the above-mentioned incidents during and after the recent election, some of the study’s findings may appear incomplete. However, the paper established a solid framework for evaluating the pros and cons of ICTs, and can serve as a good starting point for understanding how technologies may affect government transparency.

The authors reviewed a vast amount of literature on this subject in order to outline the effectiveness of existing ICTs in government transparency initiatives, evaluate the relationship between e-government and social media, identify potential barriers to ICT-enabled transparency efforts, and propose several short-term actions that can lead to long-term success.

The authors argue that ICTs can fight corruption by helping to identify corrupt behaviors. In this regard, one of the most studied e-government cases is the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Online Procedures Enhancement for civil applications (OPEN) system. Prior to the system’s launch in 1999, the order in which application materials were processed was based on “express fees” that government officials in Seoul had illegally charged. To address this corrupt behavior, the OPEN system restricted such direct interaction between applicants and government officials. Officials were also forced to provide explanations for unreasonable delays. Similarly, as a result of its collaborative and participatory nature, social media democratizes governments by enabling real-time information sharing. The authors regard whistleblowers like WikiLeaks as an example of the ways in which social media can effectively counter corruption.

However, the damage that WikiLeaks inflicted on the Clinton campaign during the 2016 election highlighted the fact that ICTs can be misused and abused. The study points out it is possible that ICTs may create new opportunities for corrupt behaviors, as new technologies historically favor those already in power. For example, when radio and television broadcasting technology first came into existence, governments used them to spread propaganda. Unfortunately, old trends continue to unfold in the twenty-first century. In 2007, Australian media – much of which was controlled by Rupert Murdoch – distorted poll results in favor of the Conservative Party Prime Minister candidate. To balance mainstream coverage, social media assumed the role of a counterforce. This example helps to illustrate the fact that a given ICT could be used to push forward very different agendas when adopted by different parties, .

Even within one society, there are substantial gaps among citizens in terms of their ability to access technology and understand disclosed information. For example, although the Obama administration made a large amount of government data available through www.data.gov, this information is more likely to be deemed valuable by those equipped with data analysis skills. This suggests that ICT-enabled transparency initiatives should be made more inclusive to all citizens. In order to achieve that end, training is needed to foster participation in e-government services and resources.

Based on these findings, what can be done in the short term to enhance government transparency and anti-corruption in the future? According to the authors, there exists little in the way of evaluation criteria to determine the success of transparency efforts or whether a nation is ready for transparency initiatives. Therefore, the first step is to develop a set of such “readiness” criteria, so that e-government efforts can be tailored to local characteristics. The study then argues that researchers and policymakers should reuse parts of existing initiatives around the world, rather than attempting to reinvent transparency systems altogether. One way to foster collaboration across nations is to select countries to serve as pilots for overarching initiatives.

This study mainly focused on the development of e-government, but also pointed out the potentially severe economic and social consequences presented by the misuse and abuse of ICTs, especially by those in power. Although some of the paper’s arguments might not fully reflect recent events, the study serves as a useful resource in examining how e-government is transforming transparency and corruption today.

Article source: Bertot, John C., Paul T. Jaeger, and Justin M. Grimes. “Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: E-government and social media as openness and anti-corruption tools for societies.Government information quarterly 27, no. 3 (2010): 264-271.

Featured photo: cc/(Pinkypills, photo ID: 600407524, from iStock by Getty Images)

yulp@uchicago.edu'
Leping (Tommy) Yu

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