Is There an App for That?: How technology is shifting the corruption dynamic

June 28th, 2011

You go to a DMV to get a driver’s license. You submit an application and take an eye exam, you pay the relevant fees, take a written exam, and then an official grades your score. If you pass, you get to take a driving test and another official evaluates your performance. Upon successful completion of these steps, someone takes your picture and 5-8 business days later your license arrives in the mail.

Well, that’s the way it is for some people. But if you were unlucky enough to be taking your driving test in a country where corruption runs rampant, it’s not so easy. You might have to pay a bribe to the official scoring your test, evaluating your driving, taking your picture, testing your eyesight, or accepting your application. It adds undue uncertainty to your transaction and it compromises the integrity of the system safeguarding public safety.

This type of corruption is pervasive and deeply entrenched in the culture of many nations. It makes life difficult for citizens trying to live their lives, carry out what should be ordinary tasks. And in many countries—like India for example—where paying a bribe is illegal, the corrupt official is forcing you to chose between completing your transaction and complying with the law. It is in this way that systematic corruption creates both a power imbalance and a forced cooperative between those demanding the bribe and those paying it.

Technology has the power to shift this dynamic. Some of the most notable examples are coming out of India, where innovators like Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of India’s “I Paid A Bribe” website, have responded to a nationwide outrage against systematic corruption. I Paid a Bribe asks users to anonymously report instances where they were forced to bribe officials. As Ramanathan explained to the BBC “There is so little risk to being corrupt in our country and so high a reward. The moment you change the equation and you make it riskier, the reward becomes less. You make it riskier by making it public.”

A similar innovation, called Bribespot, allows people with Android smartphones to send in accounts of paid bribes anywhere in the world. Users submit information on the size of the bribe, the location, and what happened. A Twitter application, called India Against Corruption, automatically retweets selected tweets from the website through your personal account. Even Philadelphia has jumped aboard, where the City Controller Alan Butkovitz has launched Philly Watchdog, an iPhone app that allows users to notify the city government with photo or video evidence of municipal fraud or activates that are wasting taxpayer money. Butkovitz hopes the app will increase government transparency by allowing citizens to directly engage with the City Controller’s office.

There is some early evidence of success among these programs. Most notably, the State Transport Department of Karnataka in India, responding to a barrage of reports over the I Paid a Bribe website, has officially changed its policies on a variety of procedures. As a result, applicants can apply for driving licenses online, complete a screen-based test of their knowledge, and take a driving test in the world’s first automated center that records the applicant’s progress electronically. All of changes eliminate at least one opportunity for an official to request a bribe. Although they do not solve the underlying cultural problem.

Information and transparency are important components of anti-corruption. These technology-based solutions increase transparency and therefore take an important step forward in shifting the dynamic between those giving and those taking the bribe. Of course, they do not solve the challenge. They do not shift the underlying culture, nor do they radically alter the power dynamic. On the other hand tackling an evolving and multifaceted problem demands an evolving and multifaceted response. Thankfully, now there’s an app for that.


Written by Ann Hollingshead

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