Colombia is stamping out corruption and blight with an app that makes it easy for citizens to report “white elephants”: neglected, abandoned or overbilled public works projects. The Transparency Secretariat has identified 54 such projects, 27 of which have led to prosecution. The incomplete construction projects are worth an estimated $163 million.
Results & Impact
Colombia has identified $163 million in abandoned state infrastructure projects since the Elefantes Blancos app was introduced in 2013. Of 54 such projects, 12 are currently being investigated and there are 27 in various stages of prosecution. The Transparency Secretariat has pressured authorities to finish 15 of the projects, which are altogether worth $408,792.
Colombia's Transparency Secretariat
Colombians can use the app to upload photos of abandoned and incomplete construction projects in municipalities across the country. Users cast votes for the most disliked projects, and the app collects data on where the "white elephants" are located and which are most frequently reported, allowing government to prioritise its investigations. Once the Transparency Secretariat receives a report, it begins assessing the case for corruption and gathering evidence, then contacts the agency in charge of the project for further information. The Secretariat sends all evidence and research to legal authorities for prosecution.
Cost & Value
Colombia has identified neglected public projects worth $163 million.
Running since 2013
There are only three people currently working on the app, in addition to Camilo Andrés Cetina Fernández, who oversees the project. The staff shortage makes it difficult to investigate and push corruption cases through the legal pipeline for prosecution. Additionally, the government bureaucracy prevalent in Colombia further slows the work the Transparency Secretariat does. Corruption is deeply engrained in the country: according to the Inspector General’s Office, corruption costs the country $7.5 billion every year, which adds up to nearly 10% of the government’s 2017 budget.
Colombia has identified $163 million in public works corruption and inefficiencies by building an app that makes it easy for citizens to report “white elephants”: neglected, abandoned or overbilled state infrastructure projects.
Since the Elefantes Blancos smartphone app was introduced in 2013, the Transparency Secretariat has identified 54 such projects. The Secretariat has pressured authorities to finish 15 of the projects, which are altogether worth $408,792. There are 27 in various stages of prosecution, and 12 currently being investigated. The forgotten public works projects were valued at $163 million after financial assessments and consultations with the commissioning state agencies.
According to figures from Colombia’s Inspector General’s Office, corruption costs the country $7.5 billion every year, which adds up to nearly 10% of the government’s 2017 budget. This means corruption costs each taxpayer $165 a year – three quarters of a monthly minimum wage.
“Four years ago, we were receiving a lot of reports on public works that were unfinished or abandoned. People were complaining about the possibility that they represent money that was embezzled by public officers, or lost by government,” said Camilo Andrés Cetina Fernández, Colombia’s Secretary of Transparency. Cetina and the Secretariat are tasked with stamping out corruption in Colombia.
“We’d receive complaints over email or in handwritten reports, with black and white or blurred photos. We felt it could be easier for citizens to take a photo on their phone and immediately report the irregularities, which is why we decided to develop an app,” said Cetina.
Citizens use the app to upload photos of incomplete public construction projects in municipalities throughout Colombia. Users can cast votes for the most disliked projects, and the app compiles data on where the “white elephants” are located and which are most frequently reported, allowing government to prioritise which projects to audit. Once the Transparency Secretariat receives a report, it begins assessing the case for corruption and gathering evidence, then contacts the agency in charge of the project.
Colombian infrastructure projects may be delayed or neglected due to legal problems, property rights inconsistencies, lack of planning or finance mismanagement (including instances of bribery and kickbacks), among other reasons.
One such project was a Bogotá police building that government had invested $10,600 in. Construction had been stalled for 14 months when it was reported, even though the project was due to be completed in 2012. Another “white elephant” identified by the app was a coastal recovery project in Tolú and Coveñas, which government invested $5,100 into. The project was poorly planned, and the proper environmental and maritime licenses were not secured, which delayed construction. Other public works projects identified as white elephants include aqueducts, sports complexes and a water park.
Currently, there are only three people working on the Elefantes Blancos app: a developer/webmaster, a quality control manager and a researcher who assesses reports for legitimacy. Cetina oversees their work, and they meet once a month to investigate and discuss all corruption cases.
“We have a huge shortage of staff. It’s a challenge to work faster on our corruption cases, and it takes time for me to assess each case,” said Cetina. “I am so overwhelmed with everything that it’s hard for me to be effective.”
Moreover, Cetina must contend with the governmental bureaucracy that slows the investigation and prosecution of such cases. “We all depend on the office of the president – every time I do things like this, I have to ask for permission. I have a lot of red tape to face to make these decisions,” he said.
The Secretariat cannot prosecute cases itself – it has to send reports to legal authorities. In order to speed up prosecution of corruption in the country, ownership of the app will soon be transferred to the local comptroller, which has the jurisdiction to prosecute corruption.
(Picture credit: Flickr/World Bank)