Is technology good or bad in the fight against corruption?

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Consider that as much as $1 trillion vanishes from the developing world’s economies every year, according to an estimate by the non-profit group Global Financial Integrity.  Now consider that, according to OECD figures, in 2012-2013 Net Overseas Development Aid was $134 billion.  These figures underscore why the fight against corruption and ending impunity are critical to the goals of ending poverty and achieving shared prosperity. 

In December of 2014 the World Bank hosted the 3rd Biennial International Corruption Hunters’ Alliance meeting focused on fighting corruption - and the vast illicit outflows generated by corruption - to share know-how and experiences in the use of both traditional and alternative corruption fighting approaches.

Though there were many examples of the successful use of technology to fight corruption presented at the meeting, a report (pdf) published from one of the sessions raises questions about whether technology always supports anti-corruption efforts. 

Dr. Anne Thurston of the International Records Management Trust spoke about problems that are arising as governments become more reliant on the use of ICTs: digital media deteriorate, software changes, and hardware becomes obsolete. The risk is that if digital records are not managed professionally, their integrity and value as legal evidence can become compromised. 

Anders Hjorth Agerskov of the World Bank discussed records management challenges in corruption investigations. Chain of custody practices can be compromised by loss of evidence and the physical deterioration of digital records. Digital records are in different forms and spread across different systems, making them difficult to locate, analyze, and control in the absence of a properly established evidence management system.

Investigations are severely undermined by missing information and assets, the improper destruction of records, and lack of sanctions and oversight of records management in the public and private sectors.

Session participants from Africa noted that, even where laws allow for the use of digital evidence in anti-corruption cases, judges are sometimes reluctant or refuse to accept such evidence. Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that corrupt officials can act with impunity? 

So what’s the answer? 

Dr. Anne Thurston pointed to a coherent set of records management standards, such as ISO15489: International Records Management Standard, which can be used to ensure that digital records are created and maintained as trustworthy evidence of government transactions.

An approach adopted in Romania also points the way. There, the National Integrity Agency, adopted a strategic approach to IT integration that consisted of two goals: enhancing agency capacity and promoting transparency. Capacity building included the introduction of an information management system designed specifically for income and asset disclosure, and a document management system that functions as an archive. For transparency, electronic submission was instituted for income and disclosure forms. 

As a result of these digital records systems, all investigations can be carried out electronically. There remain challenges, however: constraints include costs, security and sustainability of records, and intra-agency collaboration across different technical platforms. 

In considering whether technology is good or bad in the fight against corruption, the ICHA session painted a mixed picture. Ultimately, it seems best to think of technology as a tool that has the capacity to produce good or bad outcomes.  Like any tool, it needs to be used properly or it can cause harm, and proper use requires awareness of the risks, good standards of practice and training. However, If used with skill, technology can be a powerful tool in the fight to end impunity.  

One example is Supervizor, an online application for monitoring expenses of public bodies developed by the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption of the Republic of Slovenia, which has been used to reveal a strong correlation between change in government and money disbursements from state budget users to a limited number of companies.

What do you think is the role of technology in fighting corruption?  Tell us in the comments. 


Victoria L. Lemieux

Senior Public Sector Specialist

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