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].”
The website definitely takes the concept of transparency to a new level. I played around on the existing site, which is already impressive even before it is fully launched. It is easy to use and features interactive maps for users to track investments by state as well as by recipient. It even names recipients, amount of funding, and locations of the work for which the funds were disbursed.
On the site is a message from Mr. Devaney to the users, an excerpt of which reads as follows:
"…some of what we report will make some public officials unhappy. So be it! Some spending will make sense, some won’t, but it will all be there for you to see and analyze.
And that analysis is vitally important to us at the Recovery Board. I like to think of the many millions of Americans who visit Recovery.gov as “Citizen IGs’’—investigators who will help us find irregularities and possible misdeeds. You will know, long before us, when a local mayor or city official funnels a contract to a relative, or if funds are being misused in other ways. Please take the time to let us know.
Think of Recovery.gov as a “New Dawn” in transparency and accountability. To my way of thinking, the government will have to follow this model in future spending. The public will not accept any less, and you shouldn’t. Consider the Recovery Board your partner in the quest for more government openness and accountability."
Skeptics might argue that this type of technology-heavy platforms that works well in the U.S. would be meaningless and difficult to replicate in developing countries where access to Internet remains a challenge. That is not the point. Rather, the point is the simple idea behind the Recovery Board’s decision to develop the site: people are the best partners that government can have to help monitor public spending in their neighborhoods. Through partnership with citizens, government can more easily ensure that the funds are used for their intended purposes for the benefit of society.
For anti-corruption agencies, the take-away is equally simple: communicate to the people and make sure they know what you are doing. Tell them that you are fighting corruption to improve their lives. Equip people with information and educate them on their responsibility to demand for accountability. Work with the people, and the people will help you do your work.
Photo credit: Flickr user Brooks Elliott