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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.
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: http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2015/G20-Anti-Corruption-Open-Data-Principles.pdf). 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.
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.
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.