Does the Internet have a role to play in the battle against graft? It’s still early, but the signs are promising.
For public corruption to flourish, a couple of ingredients are necessary — red tape and opaque decision-making. The Internet can reduce both. Online permitting and licensing systems, for example, open the process to public scrutiny. There’s less need for contact between citizens and bureaucrats, removing opportunities for bribery. And online systems are usually simpler. That also encourages citizens to resist demands for bribes during the process.
E-government services have been tested and they work. In Korea, for example, the innovative Seoul Metropolitan Government launched a public online application system for licenses and permits in 1999. Called OPEN — the Online Procedure Enhancement for Civil Applications — it covers 54 common procedures. A U.N. report said OPEN has made the administration more transparent — officials responsible for corruption-prone areas now have to upload reports and documents so citizens can monitor the progress of their applications.
The Korean government, which has a chief information officer in each ministry, is now marketing its e-government expertise to other countries and agencies that want to give it a try.
Russia hopes to develop more e-government services. President Medvedev signaled his support by forming the Presidential Council for the Development of the Information Society in Russia. And the tech-savvy Minister of Mass Communications Igor Shchegolev has said the idea behind creating an e-government in Russia is to help people fight the country’s bureaucracy, among the most oppressive and exhausting anywhere.
“An e-government will rid our citizens of the need to visit different offices,” Shchegolev said in an article posted on FutureGov. “I certainly hope it gets somewhere — for one thing, I can’t think of a surer way to stifle corruption than to increase the number of rules-based computer interactions between citizens and government.”
We said (here) that we admire the new Internet-based whistleblower system in Illinois. It’s accessible and simple to use. But not all governments, it turns out, want to give the public such an easy way to report fraud.
In Hong Kong, for example, the normally pioneering Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is resisting an e-complaint system, according to FutureGov (here). Julie Mu, the ICAC Director of Community Relations, said in-person reporting is better. It “enables us to interact directly with the complainant and obtain more detailed information, hence facilitating investigative work. People reporting online may not be traceable,” she said.
Last year the ICAC handled 3,377 corruption reports from citizens. That’s a lot. And it followed up on 78 per cent of those. So perhaps the organization is right to be worried; an easy-access, online complaint-filing system might just overwhelm its resources.
The conclusion? E-government can reduce red tape and increase transparency overnight. That makes it the best Internet app we can think of.