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What is the Open Government’s role in tackling corruption?

Laurence Cockcroft |

Does the Open Government agenda have something useful to say about corruption?  The Open Government’s working assumption is that a revolution in openness will raise confidence in governments across the board by raising levels of public participation and ensuring more effective delivery of services.  However the removal of corruption from the provision of such services is a tough business, and requires very tough forms of transparency. The European public consider corruption to be a growing threat: a Eurobarometer  taken in 2012 found that 74 per cent of EU citizens consider it to be a major problem.  In what ways might more ‘open-ness’ restrain corruption? Key questions are:

  • Are bids and contracts placed by local and central government available on the web (as in Switzerland’s ‘simap.ch’ system)?
  • Are the various responsibilities and expected returns to different partners under Public Finance Initiatives open to public examination on the web?
  • Is there a Freedom of Information Act which works in a time frame of say less than 3 months?
  • Do political parties have to declare all donations at both constituency (where applicable) and national level?
  • Do MPs and non elected representatives (such as members of the UK House of Lords) have to make a thorough Declaration of Interests, which is regularly updated?  
  • Are MPs expenses subject to agreed limits in a way which the supervising authority may publish (as with the Scottish Parliament)?
  • Is there an open and accessible register of all recognised ‘lobbyists’ and of their meetings with Ministers and senior civil servants?
  • Are the reports of police inspectorates open and available to the public?

Where the answers are positive their execution is often weak.  Of 25 countries in the EU (plus Switzerland) recently surveyed by Transparency International only six have regulated lobbying in any significant way; the declaration of MPs expenses and interests in eleven countries covers only partially relevant information; in 20 of the countries, including the UK, implementation of Freedom of  Information laws is poor; only six of the countries have specific whistleblower legislation and only Norway and the UK provide adequate protection to whistleblowers. Party political funding and its links to procurement and contract allocation remains a critical source of corruption.  Although most EU member states have legislation which limits party donations to political parties it is very patchy in its effect.  In the UK there are no limits to personal or corporate contributions at national or constituency level (only to expenditure); a majority of countries allow undisclosed donations below (often quite high) ceilings ; the channelling of funds to ‘foundations’ and  organisations affiliated to parties is scarcely controlled.  The experience of the US in allowing the growth of Political Action Committees to support parties without funding them directly – and then in allowing them to accept unlimited corporate donations – is a case in point.  It is inconceivable that whether in Europe, the US or anywhere else on the globe such contributions are not made in the expectation of a political pay-off, which will in turn be at least partly obscured from the public gaze.  

If Open Government is to address corruption all these issues need to be addressed, otherwise ‘openness’ will prove a half baked panacea.

Photo Credit: Bribe cash exchange by BackgroundNow.com via Flickr