Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Open government, transparency and corruption

Sunshine is the best disinfectant- Louis Brandeis

This is going to read like a lecture, please bear with me.
Here goes:

In other parts of the world (read: UK, US, Australia and Kenya) governance is being redefined. How you may ask, governments are making themselves vulnerable by releasing to the public, information on the processes, activities and expenses of government. Thus making them more accountable and transparent. In the US and UK, governance is becoming a shared activity between, the elected, the civil service and the people.
First, some definitions: open government is “the notion that the people have the right to access the documents and proceedings of government…it means a  government where citizens not only have access to information, documents and proceedings but can also become participants in a meaningful way”. A term associated with the open government movement is open data. Open data as it relates to government is the ideal that information/data should be freely available to everyone to use and monitor the government. This is different from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which is request driven. For instance, I want to find out how much a senator earns, I would write to the appropriate authorities in the Senate and demand that information. On the other hand, open data is when the Senate releases figures and information on its expenditure e.g. the number of jeeps purchased for legislators each year; when FRSC releases publicly in a machine-readable format, the victims of vehicle accidents; the amount of money spent on coffee in the Ministries etc. In summary, open data is not request driven, it is openly given. Open data can be used for mapping (health incidents, community projects) and citizen engagement. I believe that open data (more like open information) can be used to address corruption which sadly has become a part of our DNA as Nigerians. I read an article on corruption and sadly, I agree that in Nigeria, corruption pays.

How can open information reduce corruption?
 I agree that sunshine is the best disinfectant. I may be wrong but I think we humans have the capacity for shame and no matter how thick-skinned we claim to be, no one wants to see their names appear in damaging newspaper headlines. The simple solution is governments at all levels should make publicly available information on their activities. That is in 2011, we budget 10 million for so and so and at the end of the year, we spent so and so. That’s it.

However, it is not that simple. For open information to be useful and truly exist, two things have to happen and they are:
1)   The re-organization of the civil service: the civil service is the backbone of any government and society.  Sadly, on the issue of corruption, Nigerian civil servants jointly share the blame with rulers. Political willingness is vital in ridding the civil service of the patronage system. The civil service at all levels has to be reformed and re-organized because information may be released but may be manipulated such that it becomes a case of the more you look, the less you see. The challenge here is that the civil service would kick against reforms because their corruption would be exposed. If somehow, Nigerian civil servants can submit themselves to public scrutiny, we may see better governance and improved development.
Related to civil service reforms is participatory budgeting (I suggest this though we may not be quite ready yet). If communities and citizens are involved in the budget process at the local and state levels, governments may be made to provide what citizens actually need and not what the government thinks they need.
2)   National discourse and agreement on how to strengthen our institutions such that they do not revolve around people. Nigeria and Nigerians need to have that very frank conversation. Second, our constitution has to be changed. I understand the need for federal character but this promotes corruption.
If we can address these underlying issues, we are on track to tackling our graft problem. An aside, check out this site on budget watch and citizen engagement this is an example of a citizen- led effort to promote open government.
 Might I suggest that international financial institutions have a role to play. They know and we know how highly respected they are in our country, so rather that imposing austerity measures as conditions for loans, they should insist on open data so that they and Nigerians can track on monies are spent. Active roles by international financial organizations would also assist reform minded technocrats in speeding up the change process.

OK, thank you. You have come to the end of the lecture. I rest my case.

1 comment:

  1. You have said it all. Let those who have ears, hear