Spain has experienced major corruption scandals in the past decade, but its mediocrely rated judiciary did manage to sentence record numbers of local, regional and national powerful figures for corruption. The lack of full autonomy of the judiciary from partisan interest is the main IPI component dragging down Spain: otherwise the country has decent autonomy of bureaucracy from political authorities and an administration which works well for the citizen. However, its public accountability framework show it lagging behind EU average on sanctions for conflict of interest or lack of transparency, where issued had arisen; furthermore, its procurement regulation also needs an upgrade to best practices in the EU. The strong demand for good governance is often instrumentalized by populist politics, but the number of e-citizens and the activism of non-partisan civil society are strong assets.
The final title in the series The Anticorruption Report covers the most important findings of the five-year-long EU-sponsored ANTICORRP project on corruption and organized crime. How prone to corruption are EU funds? Who wins and who loses the anticorruption fight? And can we have better measurements than people’s perceptions to indicate if corruption changes? This issue introduces a new index of public integrity and a variety of other tools created in the project.
The Anticorruption Report Vol. 4: Beyond the Panama Papers looks at the performance of EU Good Governance Promotion in different countries in the European neighbourhood. Case studies focussing on Spain, Slovakia and Romania are considering the impact of EU structural funds and good governance promotion within the Union. Further chapters looking at Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Tanzania are analysing EU democracy and good governance support in third countries. The report, edited by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and Jana Warkotsch offers a comprehensive and overarching look at the successes and pitfalls of the EU’s efforts to democracy promotion and introduces new ways to assess the state of good governance in different countries around the world.
When talking anti-corruption, the most common buzzwords flung around by civil society activists, researchers and development professionals alike are transparency and accountability. Transparency is seen as so key to the fight against corruption that its arguably most important advocate took it as part of its name: Transparency International. It should thus not come as a surprise that the EU Horizon 2020 DIGIWHIST project also aims at increasing transparency, specifically in the realm public procurement. But how do we increase transparency, and how does this contribute to more accountable governance?
A significant part of the project involves the collection of publicly available budget data for both national- and local-level governments across the EU countries and beyond. DIGIWHIST relies on countries following through on their commitments to budget transparency in order to find the necessary data, but it’s evident that not all countries are pursuing budget transparency in the same way.
Budget transparency – and how to get it right
The OECD definition of budget transparency is “the full disclosure of all relevant fiscal information in a timely and systematic manner.” Thus, what’s important to consider when we talk about this kind of transparency is both how promptly the information in question is released, as well as how predictable and orderly its release is.
The digital era has transformed the practice of budget transparency significantly. Ideally, citizens who wish to inform themselves about their government’s budget simply need to access an online portal where they can find all of the desired information presented to them in an accessible, understandable format. Regular users of online media should, however, not be surprised that the reality of budget transparency is more complex than this. The extent to which it is realized varies radically today. Still, there are some examples of how to do digital budget transparency “right”.
The German government, for example, has two main portals for people to turn to. One is Bundeshaushalt-info.de, which allows visitors to explore the national budget via colorful infographics and interactive tables. The second is Govdata.de, the government’s official open data portal, where a simple search of “Bundeshaushalt” returns machine-readable versions of the national budget from 2012-2015. Both portals cater to diverse audiences, ensuring that everyone from casually interested citizens to dedicated data analysts (like the kind of people working on DIGIWHIST) can find the desired information in a form that works for them. On a more local level, a great example of this can be found in Spain. The Presupuestos de Aragón website offers visitors a variety of interactive tools and visualizations for understanding the Spanish autonomous community’s budget. Their open data portal, Opendata.aragon.es, also provides machine-readable budget documents for the years 2006 – 2017.
So how can we evaluate who is doing budget transparently well? One of the main organizations focusing on this is the International Budget Partnership, which conducts the Open Budget Survey. The survey tends to focus on more traditional aspects of budget transparency rather than solely on the digital aspect of it. It contains an index measuring countries’ budget transparency (amount, level of detail and timeliness of budget information), budget participation (opportunities for civil society and the general public to participate in the budget-making process), and budget oversight (capacity of institutions to influence how public resources are raised and spent). The most recent survey, published in 2015, saw New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa, Norway, and the United States leading the pack.
Another view on evaluating budget transparency comes from the Open Knowledge Foundation, which publishes a ranked government budget dataset. They have a specific focus on the availability of government data in digital forms, and rankings are based on nine different factors, such as whether budget data is openly licensed, if it is available online, and if it is machine readable. Because this index is more narrowly focused than the Open Budget Survey, it is hard to compare the two data sources, and they often have strikingly diverging rankings (for example, the Open Budget Survey ranks Russia 11th overall, while the OKFN rankings have Russia tied for 105th place). Thus when evaluating budget transparency, it’s important to be clear about what aspects of it you are specifically interested in.
Transparency – and then what?
Just having the data in hand does not mean the battle is won. More transparency does not automatically equal more accountability. On the contrary: exerting accountability via budget transparency is no easy feat. The mere existence and general availability of budget data does not mean that it is immediately possible to make observations on and draw meaningful conclusions from the data. First of all, the way the data is published is often problematic. It does no good for a country to boast that all of its budget information is published online if that information is buried in a difficult-to-navigate finance ministry site, or in a chaotically-organized open data portal. Other countries still exclusively publish budgetary information in PDFs or publish only select portions of their budget data in machine readable formats. This is prohibitive to organizations like DIGIWHIST who want to automatically extract and analyze budget data, as extracting information from PDFs is much more difficult and error-prone.
Second, the actual analysis of budget data and what changes in allocations from year to year actually mean can be challenging without sufficient contextual background. Huge changes can be explained away by departmental consolidations, and small shifts in numbers may actually be indicative of changes that warrant scrutiny – the point is, a casual observer of this data can’t necessarily look at it and understand what is happening and identify potential causes for concern.
Third, the budget data needs to be sufficiently detailed to be useful from an accountability perspective. For DIGIWHIST’s work with public procurement data, for example, it is not sufficient to know how much money is being allocated or spent by a single ministry. Since the project is interested in matching contracting authorities from procurement tenders with the specific government agencies to which they correlate, a deeper layer of detail is needed; budget experts refer to this as the “economic classification.” But not all countries release budget information at levels this specific, making it that much more difficult for organizations like DIGIWHIST to hold governments accountable for their budget allocations.
Though progress at times feels slow, there is a clear trend toward greater budgetary transparency in governments and better provision of structured, accessible data. Projects like DIGIWHIST help in furthering this push thanks to the pressure they place on governments to be more accountable. Their researchers make transparency and accountability more than just buzzwords and help citizens and civil society activsts in their fight against corruption.
By Tori Dykes
This post was originally published as part of the DIGIWHIST project.
What does whistleblowing look like in the digital age? What are its benefits and pitfalls? On 17 November 2015 the Hertie School of Governance and the Council of Europe hosted a discussion on these questions. The event was a satellite event to the World Forum for Democracy, taking place at the Council of Europe 18 – 21 November and focusing on finding the right balance between freedom and control in democratic societies. The Hertie School brought together a set of panellists from a variation of countries and fields to present their very own experiences of working with whistleblowing. The panel was moderated by Anne Koch, regional director for Europe and Central Asia at Transparency International.
The different panellists showcased various experiences of working in the context of whistleblowing: Marius Dragomir, a journalist and senior manager for the independent journalism programme of the Open Society Foundations in London, Maksymilian Czuperski, working the Atlantic Council which recently supported the collection of evidence for the presence of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine by crowdsourcing information from citizens. It also featured Simona Levi, the founder of Xnet, a Spanish online journalism platform specialized on engaging citizen. Xnet actively calls upon citizens to become whistleblowers and leak undisclosed information in order to uncover corrupt behaviour.
The final two panellists were Mara Mendes, project manager for Open Knowledge Germany and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor of democratization at the Hertie School. They presented DIGIWHIST, a new EU Horizon 2020 project. The project aims at increasing transparency and efficiency of public spending. It will do this through the systematic collection, structuring, analysis, and broad dissemination of information on public procurement through online platforms. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi highlighted the centrality of procurement data in fighting corruption. Linked to information on aggregate asset and income declarations data, she hopes that this data will help detect potential conflicts of interest and identify systemic vulnerabilities. In this way DIGIWHIST is supposed to specifically support journalists in creating transparency within the procurement sector.
What is a whistleblower?
One reoccurring theme at the discussion was the actual definition of a whistleblower. Anne Koch opened the panel by describing it as “any person that wants to report wrong doing to someone who can do something against the problem.” This stood somehow in contrast to the experience of Xnet’s Simona Levi, who, for instance, collected emails from whistleblowers at big Spanish banks and reported on wrongdoings in these contexts. The panel agreed though that a whistleblower does not necessarily have to be someone working for the government or a private enterprise and release information from the inside. For Alina Mungiu-Pippidi it was “a person who is aware of a situation the rest of the world is not and brings it to public attention.” It can also be a group of people collectively gathering information that the wider public is unaware off, or analyse data collectively in order to highlight important information.
Who has the right to decide?
The debate also looked at the pitfalls of whistleblowing and discussed the questions of what safeguards are needed to prevent harm to innocent individuals through whistleblowing. In many countries protection of whistleblowers is still deficient and there are no laws specifically protecting whistleblowers from prosecution. Often those willing to share information are unaware of technical tools which can be used to protect their identity. The participants highlighted tools such as GlobaLeaks, which provides anonymous channels for whistleblowers. Journalists in particular carry a twofold responsibility. On the one hand they need to protect their sources and those who entrust them with information, also by teaching them secure ways to share information. Journalists, however, are also responsible for the information they publish. When Anne Koch asked the panel who has the right to decide what publications are in the public interest, the panel generally agreed: journalists can decide, but they have to be aware of their special responsibility. They will, however, always be better placed to decide than civil servants who might incriminate themselves by publishing data.
In the end, the best kind of whistleblowing might be done collectively. Communities of people can uncover corrupt behaviour of local officials and document what is happening around them. Also, individual whistleblowers depend on those around them. As Alina Mungiu-Pippidi pointed out: “In the end, laws cannot protect whistleblowers, but public opinion can.” A similar conclusion was also taken at a panel on safe whistleblowing at the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, which representatives of ERCAS also attended. One conclusion to be taken from both discussions is that whistleblowing should not remain an exception, but it should become the norm for citizens to report wrongdoings that they witness.
Xnet is formed by a group of activists that, since 2008 work in fields related to:
- online democracy (participation mechanisms and citizen control of power and institutions);
- advocacy of a neutral and free Internet;
- free circulation of culture, knowledge and information and the defense of citizen journalism for the right to know, to inform and be informed;
- the development of technical, communication and legal strategies for the fight against corruption and;
- techno-politics understood as the practice of networking and taking action for empowerment, justice and social transformation.
- Anti-corruption legal and communication strategies
XNet does not perceive political parties and public prosecutors as allies, but as a part of the problem. For anyone paying attention, it is obvious that the only victories in the fight against systemic corruption come from citizens, or thanks to citizens. Corruption is a moral, legal and political problem, but it is also a technical problem and as such, it can be pragmatically tackled in an efficient and technical manner.
Tired of witnessing how those responsible of the biggest frauds and scams go unpunished, XNet has taken part in the legal fights, some of which have led to the arrests of the main responsible for the misappropriation of funds in very representative cases in Spain.
Xnet have also encouraged, promoted and stimulated a series of citizen-run initiatives and collectives against corruption, among them the remarkable 15mparato, a citizen group responsible for the lawsuit against Bankia upper echelon, because of the scam this firm has proven to be. Starting from the participation of Xnet members in the collective for the Audition of the Debt, another group was created with the aim of auditing the most widely known banker in Spain.
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Fundación Ciudadana Civio (Civio) is a Spanish non-profit organization established in February of 2012.
Its strategy is to increase transparency and accountability through the use of information technologies and data journalism.
Their commitment is to promote transparency and the recognition and democratization of the right to access to information.
Civio’s ultimate goal is to increase citizens’ participation and awareness and to achieve significant cultural and legislative changes fostering a stronger democracy.
Civio’s combine web applications and data journalism to develop innovative digital tools that facilitate access and interpretation of public information.
Through the use of data mining, scraping, analysis and visualization, as well as the generation of quality content, Civio addresses fields such as public budgets, governmental pardons, access to information and conflicts of interest.
A a non profit organization that fights for a stronger democracy. It works towards the creation of authentic transparency and free access to public data for every citizen and organization. It believes in a society made up of active citizens who have a strong sense of democratic responsibility.