As you can see from many of our blog posts, we're somewhat struggling with getting a good grip on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and their role for governance and accountability. We're also somewhat split along the lines of enthusiasm and scepticism with regard to the possibilities of using ICTs to straighten out a distorted public sphere and further development. This morning I learned about eProcurement, a very particular application of ICT in the context of government accountability, that seems to me a good argument in favor of us technology enthusiasts.
Imagine there are accountability mechanisms and no one knows how to use them. Development practitioners in Peru wrestled with exactly this problem in the early 2000s when transparency and accountability became integral parts of government agencies - but citizens had no way of knowing what made public service delivery good and what should be complained about.
The recent release of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) used to be as eagerly awaited by political leaders as chefs wait for the Michelin Guide’s ratings. Leaders of countries that move up the list or have improved their ratings were quick to announce the findings, taking all the credit for improvements. Leaders of countries whose ratings have fallen in the index did not seem as motivated to go public accepting responsibility or promising to improve.
The majority of the 180 countries included in the 2009 index score below five on a scale from 0 to 10. No country scored 0, perhaps signaling optimism even in the worst circumstances. Given the lack of progress among the most corrupt countries is anyone trying new ways to reduce corruption?
I recently spoke at the World e-Parliament 2009 Conference held in Washington at the US House of Representatives. The conference attracted representatives from all Parliaments and was attended by more than 300 Members of Parliament, Clerks or Secretary -Generals of Parliaments, their deputies and other people working on e-Parliaments. With a global centre in Rome partially funded by the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, the group tries to coordinate and develop ICT systems for Parliaments. They strongly believe that ICT can be a tool for greater transparency and accountability of Parliaments and a larger platform for public consultation and interaction with citizens. They are looking at ways to harness new technologies for this purpose.
Strengthening accountability relationships between policy makers, service providers and citizens is at the core of the public accountability effort. But because traditional, supply-side interventions alone have not been able to deliver expected development outcomes; governance practitioners, civil society and policy-makers are increasingly looking towards citizen-driven, social accountability processes to strengthen governance and service delivery. The two approaches must be integrally linked. If governance and accountability are central to the development agenda, social accountability interventions must be a part of this agenda as well. Most governance practitioners would agree on this point.
Governments and development agencies have devoted many years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing democratic governance in countries around the world. The idea of creating democracies is still the primary driver of many governance improvement agendas. Clearly, democratic systems often bring with them improvements in governance and economic development, but simply putting a democracy into place is not enough.
Last week, this blog featured a quote by Elinor Ostrom, which contains an interesting sentence: “Yet I worry that the need for continuous civic engagement, intellectual struggle, and vigilance is not well understood in some of our mature democracies and is not transmitted to citizens and officials in new democracies….We have to avoid slipping into a naïve sense that democracy – once established – will continue on its own momentum."
There was an article in the New York Times recently with the title 'What's Really Wrong With Wall Street Pay?' In the article, the writer discusses a problem world leaders want to do something about but are not sure how. How do you stop compensation packages for bankers and traders in global markets from encouraging them to take the kinds of wild risks that have done so much damage to the global economy? I wish the leaders the very best of luck in dealing with that one. Success in the endeavor is far from certain...to put it gently.
What caught my eye as I was reading the piece is what the writer says bankers call the "I.B.G-Y.B.G." problem, as in 'I'll be gone and you will be gone'. It is the moral hazard problem. Traders in global markets take incredible risks and recklessly, they collect their bonuses and move on. The firm takes all the risk. Well, it turns out that taxpayers take risks as well, since governments have had to bail out so many banks deemed too big to fail.
According to The Financial Times, the U.S. government’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board plans to launch in October what the FT calls “the most complex government website in history." The Recovery Board, an independent body headed by Chairman Earl Devaney, is tasked to oversee the outflow of the US $787 billion stimulus package to jumpstart the ailing economy, and the state-of the-art website is intended to engage citizens in tracking the use of taxpayer money.
What caught my attention is the premise behind this initiative—that citizens know best what is happening in their own communities. In an effort to rein in waste, fraud, and abuse of stimulus funds, the Recovery Board is putting into practice the principles of accountability and transparency through partnership with citizens. The Board understands that to carry out its mandate successfully, it needs to equip citizens with information so that they can help the Board do its job. As Mr. Devaney explains, “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors-general].”
Alchemy is well known as the science of turning invaluable substances into gold. But it symbolizes transformation of the most radical kind. (From the Arabic word al-kimia, alchemy literally means "the art of transformation.")
So what does accountability have to do with radical transformation? According to the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) , a government agency in Andhra Pradesh, India; accountability is key to ensuring transformation of the poor.
SERP is implementing the Andhra Pradesh Rural Poverty Reduction Project, locally known as Indira Kranthi Patham (IKP) in all the 22 rural districts of Andhra Pradesh. IKP is the longest running livelihoods program financed by the World Bank in South Asia but what makes the project unique is not large-scale spending. It is the slow, intentional process of building institutions of and by the poor that no amount of money alone has been able to accomplish. The idea behind this project is that accountability and sound governance practices must be embedded in the norms and culture of institutions rather than treated as after-thoughts.
The potential that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have to contribute to economic growth in developing countries is undeniable. In terms of what ICT in general and e-government in particular can do specifically to improve governance and accountability, we often hear about their positive impact on government transparency and responsiveness, on government efficiency and effectiveness, and finally, on citizen access to information, services, and opportunities.