Introduction: Meeting the challenge of corruption

Where’s our starting point?

There are many definitions of corruption in use around the world, some more detailed or precise than others. These definitions vary across different countries and legal systems (Different national legal systems and international agreements each use their own definitions of corruption, or set out a specific series of acts or forms of conduct that are considered as corruption. Penal Codes reviewed: Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, United Kingdom, United States and Turkey). As a global reference, and as a starting point for this resource we use the Transparency International definition of corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. This short but widely accepted definition contrasts with the broad array of forms that an act of corruption can take: from bribes to local officials, to sophisticated financial schemes for transfer mispricing or tax evasion.

Box 1. Is it possible to classify corruption?

Different scholars and practitioners have tried to propose analytical categories to understand and investigate corruption. Depending on the angle and objectives of the researcher, categories of corruption vary. Transparency International have identified at least three broad categories that allow to group and analyze certain acts of corruption: Grand corruption is the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and causes serious and widespread harm to individuals and society. Such acts distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good. Transparency International has proposed an specific legal definition that can be consulted here. Petty corruption refers to everyday abuse of entrusted power by low- and mid-level public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies. Political corruption is a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.

Source: Transparency International

Frequently, descriptions of corruption are over-simplified, reducing them to isolated acts between two different agents: the one who offers a bribe, and the one who receives it. In other words, as the often repeated quote puts it: “it takes two to tango”. Yet in reality, corruption is a complex crime. Many modern cases of corruption are the result of a series of actions and agreements to subvert government processes, influence or manipulate policies and oversight mechanisms, extract rents, and hide the proceeds. Committing an act of corruption requires the complicity, and secrecy, of a group of individuals and organizations. In other words, a corruption network.

As institutional and legal frameworks adjust and improve to reduce spaces for corruption, these networks also adjust and increase their sophistication and complexity. Analytical approaches to understand the changing dynamics of corruption networks are diverse. Often, only some parts of the network are ‘visible’, or in the reach of particular authorities. As a result, a wide range of conventions, laws, policies, or mechanisms intended to reduce risks and impact of corruption schemes have been designed and implemented across the world. Some of them with better impact than others. Open data could play a key role, enhancing the effectiveness of this set of anti-corruption tools.

In 2014, the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG) recognised the importance of open data as an emerging resource that could be used to address corruption, highlighting its potential to follow financial flows, open up public contracting and procurement, change incentives in corruption-prone environments, and to enable cross-sector collaboration (G20. Available at: From extractives and aid, to procurement and political finance, initiatives have turned to open data, as a powerful tool to identify, and ultimately dismantle, corruption networks.

Box 2. Corruption: a global agenda

In the last two decades, corruption has been a headline issues in the global agenda. Government leaders, civil society organizations, private sector leaders and international agencies have highlighted the effects of corruption on global stability and inclusive development. Several global initiatives have called for robust and sound legal frameworks that deals with corruption issues, such as bribery, as well as spaces for coordination among governments and institutions. As a response, the global community has reached specific agreements and commitments to fight and control corruption. Some of them are: The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention is a global instrument that makes “foreign bribery a crime for which individuals and enterprises are responsible” (Exporting Corruption Report, Transparency International). It establishes legally binding obligations with the purpose of preventing and sanctioning bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions. Since its publication in 1997, 41 countries have adopted and ratified it. The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) was adopted by a UN General Assembly resolution of October, 31st, 2003 and on December, 9th 2003, 114 countries signed the Convention in Merida, Mexico. The treaty focuses on combating money laundering and promoting integrity within governments through prevention, criminalization, international cooperation and asset recovery. The G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group (G20 ACWG) was established in Toronto in 2010 as a response to the impact of corruption and bribery on international economic growth. The agenda of the group includes beneficial ownership transparency, bribery, corruption in high-risk sectors, public sector transparency and integrity, international cooperation and private sector transparency and integrity. The G20 ACWG has also adopted a set of principles on the use of open data against corruption, although a February 2017 report by Transparency International and the Web Foundation found that a number of G20 countries were failing to live up to these commitments. The UK Anti-Corruption Summit was an international event hosted last May 12th, 2016 by the UK Government in London, to “galvanise a global response to tackle corruption”. 40 countries attended the Summit where governments signed up to a set of general principles and signed a global declaration against corruption. Some governments made specific country commitments. These initiatives show the different angles for addressing corruption issues from a global perspective. Their effectiveness is based on both implementation by member countries, and coordination among different actors.

Many of the activities of a corruption network, and many of the individuals and organisations involved, leave their mark on government held datasets. Paradoxically, corruption schemes frequently rely upon the law to secure ownership of companies, land and assets used to launder their proceeds: although they seek secrecy by using shell companies and complex ownership networks. Public contracts, spending and other transactions are all recorded in government ledgers. And existing policies may call for asset disclosures and interest registers to be maintained.

Whilst all this information remains in silos, identifying, tracking and confronting corruption networks remains a laborious task. If more data is made available and interoperable (increasing the ability to find connections between datasets), it should be possible spot suspicious patterns and so strengthen anti-corruption initiatives implemented either by governments or civil society organizations.

Box 3. What is Open Government Data?

During the past years, the open data agenda has grown significantly. Facilitated by technology and digital media, what started being a technical and specialized discussion has now become a global movement. The International Open Data Charter (IODC) defines open data as “digital data that is made available with the technical and legal characteristics necessary for it to be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone, anytime, anywhere”. Many governments around the world have embraced this agenda, recognizing the value of open data “to advance collaboration around key social challenges, provide effective public oversight of government activities, and support innovation, sustainable economic development, and the creation and expansion of effective, efficient public policies and programs”.

For more information visit the International Open Data Charter “Resource Center” at:

However, open data is not a magic bullet. The increasing release of datasets on governmental budgets, contracts and audits, politicians and public servants’ assets, central to the traditional transparency and accountability agenda, does not automatically translate into effective anti-corruption policies, mechanisms or tools. Even when it is possible to find some cases where open data has been a valuable tool for anticorruption, there is still a general perception that more can be done. Whilst recognizing the importance of transparency to inhibit corruption, it is key to go beyond the idea that disclosing data directly equals corruption reduction.

The release of open data must allow the development of specific tools that are able to activate authorities and institutions with anti-corruption responsibilities and capabilities. It must also allow citizens and journalists to connect and track information across different datasets, fostering more effective civic anti-corruption initiatives. Understanding the dynamics of anti-corruption data, structuring and publishing it in open formats and improving its quality are initial tasks to enable the use of technology and the development of innovative applications to fight corruption networks. Further actions, such as investing in capacity-building for data analysis of government agencies, prosecutors, journalists and civic watchdog organisations, will also be needed.

By acknowledging the complexity of this discussion, the Anti-Corruption Open Up Guide is intended to be a starting point for a structured dialogue among different actors –governments, civil society organizations, international organizations, investigative journalists, business associations, small and medium enterprises, entrepreneurs– on the use of open data for preventing, detecting, investigating and sanctioning corruption. It is not intended to be an exhaustive tool but rather the basis for even more focussed work around specific corruption challenges.

The Anti-Corruption Open Up Guide identifies:

  • Use cases and methodologies. Increased disclosure alone does not equal reduced corruption. Open data needs to be used to be effective and in combination with other tools and sources of information. A series of case studies highlight existing and future approaches to the use of open data, as well as relevant contextual factors.

  • Priority datasets and their attributes. To address corruption networks it is particularly important that connections can be established and followed across information systems, national borders and different sectors. This calls for shared prioritisation of key datasets.

  • Data standards. Standards describe what should be published, and the technical details of how it should be made available. They play a key role in bringing about data interoperability.

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