Fighting corruption through Open Government Initiatives

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Photo: © Stephan Gladieu / World Bank Photo: © Stephan Gladieu / World Bank

Some anti-corruption efforts aim directly at the problem itself, while others take a more indirect route, seeking to create an environment in which graft and fraud are less likely to proliferate. Open government initiatives tend to fall in the latter camp. Open government consists of public sector transparency, citizen participation in the workings of government, accountability of public officials and institutions, and government responsiveness to citizens’ needs and demands. These components are ideally blended together in a whole-of-government approach that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Building a stronger relationship between government and citizens can increase levels of trust and social capital, improve policymaking, and increase oversight of the use of public resources. Because of shifting norms of behavior and/or an increasing likelihood of sanction for illegal activity, corruption may decrease alongside an improvement in the effectiveness of public spending.  

A chapter on “Open and Inclusive Government” in the World Bank’s recently published report on corruption pulls together existing research and country experiences to sketch out the connections between open government methodologies and anti-corruption aims. The chapter looks at three common entry points for reformers: 

  • increasing citizens’ access to information via legislation or transparency initiatives, so that they can be part of policymaking and oversight of government activities; 
  • improving fiscal transparency, which is treated as a separate category of “information” given its centrality to anti-corruption efforts; and 
  • facilitating citizen engagement and social accountability as a means to promoting government responsiveness.

There is an increasing evidence that suggests that openness can make a difference in reducing corruption when other enabling factors are present , such as political will, a free and independent media, a robust civil society, and effective accountability and sanctioning mechanisms. Whether a certain reform or program succeeds in helping to lower corruption is entirely dependent on the context.

It takes time for the fruits of such approaches to ripen. In Ethiopia, a social accountability program empowers communities to hold public service providers, such as schools and healthcare centers, more accountable for service quality. Citizen trust in government was low at the outset of the program (a pilot from 2006-2009), and given the country’s recent political history there was little or no precedent at the time for feedback on service delivery to percolate upward from the grassroots level. Citizens were afraid to report problems they had faced. But by the time the third phase of the program began in 2019, trust had increased considerably, and people had begun to feel more comfortable speaking up.

While corruption was not the target of the Ethiopia program, it may have had some impact, albeit at a small scale. According to Lucia Nass, one of the program’s leaders, “there is a lot of petty corruption, which is especially difficult for poor people… [the program] helped citizens understand what services are supposed to be free and what services need to be paid, and how much they cost. With greater transparency and accountability, corruption becomes more difficult.”

The program also boosted awareness of the role that woreda (local district) councils play in overseeing service delivery, potentially leading to improved oversight of the councils themselves. And, there has been increased participation in parent teacher association meetings at the primary school level, perhaps indicating the kind of rising civic engagement that could curb opportunities for corruption.

While none of these positive effects is guaranteed, neither does corruption occur in a vacuum—it is a feature of a complex ecosystem of incentives and opportunities. By changing that ecosystem, reformers may be able to improve outcomes.

Editor’s Note: This blog is part of a series that helps unpack our new global report, Enhancing Government Effectiveness and Transparency: The Fight Against Corruption.


Stephen Davenport

Global Lead, Anticorruption, Openness, and Transparency

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