In October, hundreds of representatives of civil society organizations, public and private sector representatives, journalists and international organizations gathered in Copenhagen for the 18th International Anti-Corruption Conference. This annual conference is viewed by many as a leading forum in the field of anti-corruption.
The team that I’m part of—The Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR)—together with the Network for Integrity organized a joint session at the conference on promoting transparent and accountable institutions. This was an opportunity for us to share with the broad audience the findings of our publication: Getting the Full Picture on Public Officials: A How-to Guide for Effective Asset Declaration.
There are no international standards governing financial disclosure yet and frankly, it’s not a process that any public official relishes, but our handbook offers practical how-to guidance on implementing disclosure systems that are efficient and effective. It draws on the lessons we’ve learned and identifies key challenges that are consistent across all regions while also examining the intricacies of implementing financial disclosure systems in countries’ unique socioeconomic, historical and legal contexts.
It also covers mundane, but fundamentally important “do’s and don’ts” in developing asset disclosure systems. Even how you design the form matters. For example, in one country, an early version of an interest disclosure form read, “Please declare all your interests,” and provided a large blank space to be filled in by the public official. Staff who reviewed these declarations noticed the different interpretations that each filer had given to the same guidance.
One senator detailed every company he had an interest in, the number of shares, and their value, while another filer simply wrote, “I have agricultural interests.” This is an extreme example, but illustrative of the importance of precision when designing the form especially as deliberately submitting incomplete or inaccurate information in an asset declaration is a criminal offence in several countries.
Here are some additional highlights from our research:
- Online filing of asset declaration has been successfully launched in countries in all regions and income levels. The electronic filing of declarations has liberated asset-declaration professionals from tasks such as distributing paper forms and organizing piles of paper, which are time consuming and reduce the time available for looking into their content. This also has the potential to provide more meaningful public access and unlocks analytical opportunities for civil society and investigative journalists. We still have progress to make though: While many countries have transitioned to electronic submissions, 69 percent of countries still accept handwritten submissions.
- There is increased interest in moving beyond what officials and family members own directly toward what they own as ultimate beneficiaries. In most countries with asset-declaration systems, officials and family members are required to disclose only those assets that are registered in their own names, not assets that they hold as beneficial owners and might be formally registered under the name of a company or another individual. This can result in significant gaps – as numerous recent corruption cases and investigative journalists have shown that for example, high-value real estate would be registered in the name of a company or a nominal owner.
I invite you to continue to the discussion by reading our report: Getting the Full Picture on Public Officials: A How to Guide for Effective Asset Declaration, and sharing your thoughts below in the comments section on how to strengthen anti-corruption efforts globally.