In June 2016, a man was caught throwing sacks over the wall of a nunnery in a quiet suburb of Buenos Aires. After a neighbour called the police, he was arrested and identified as a secretary in Argentina’s public works department. Inside the sacks were banknotes worth $8.9million.
Hardly a country in Latin America has been untouched by corruption scandals; this was just one of the more bizarre episodes. In response, using a variety of open online platforms, both city and national governments are working to lift the lid on government activity, finding new ways to tackle corruption with technology.
Profiting from public works
Latin America’s corruption problem has centred on infrastructure projects, or public works: projects paid for by the state and built by contractors, from schools and hospitals to dams.
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Alongside Argentina, where a former public works secretary is facing charges of bribery (the case is ongoing), one of the region’s biggest building firms, the Brazilian company Odebrecht has faced widespread corruption allegations, some of the largest of which it has admitted to. In Peru, the president resigned after facing scandals including bribery allegations relating to the same company (he denies any wrongdoing.)
For Kathy Hochstetler, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, the problem is size. Because only a few very large companies are able to build major projects, the opportunity to take a substantial cut of money is far easier, and more efficient than taking cuts from multiple providers.
And, on cumbersome and multifaceted projects, costs accumulate, making it easier to hide corruption as overspending. “It’s hard to distinguish between things that are genuinely driving up cost and corrupt arrangements,” said Hochstetler. When the public is kept at arm’s length, corruption can go unnoticed: “People don’t generally have an exact understanding of precisely what things cost.”
Buenos Aires’ public works portal
In Buenos Aires, government is dealing with the problem by making the details of all its public works projects completely transparent. With BA Obras, an online platform, the city maps projects across the city, and lists detailed information on their cost, progress towards completion and the names of the contractors.
“We allocate an enormous amount of money,” said Alvaro Herrero, Under Secretary for Strategic Management and Institutional Quality for the government of Buenos Aires, who helped to build the tool. “We need to be accountable to citizens in terms of what are we doing with that money.”
The portal is designed to be accessible to the average user. Citizens can filter the map to focus on their neighbourhood, revealing information on existing projects with the click of a mouse.
“A journalist called our communications team a couple of weeks ago,” said Herrero. “He said: ‘I want all the information on all the infrastructure projects that the government has, and I want the documentation.’ Our guy’s answer was, ‘OK, I will send you all the information in ten seconds.’ All he had to do was send a link to the platform.”
Since launching in October 2017 with 80 public works projects, the platform now features over 850. It has had 75,000 unique views, the majority coming in the month after launching.
Making people aware and encouraging them to use it is key. “The main challenge is not the platform itself, but getting residents to use it,” said Herrero. “We’re still in that process.”
Brazil’s public spending checkers
Brazil is using big data analysis to scrutinise its spending via its Public Expenditure Observatory (ODP).
The ODP was founded in 2008 to help monitor spending across government departments systematically. In such a large country, spending data is difficult to pull together, and its volume makes it difficult to analyse. The ODP pulls together disparate information from government databases across the country into a central location, puts it into a consistent format and analyses it for inconsistency. Alongside analysis, the ODP also makes the data public.
For example, in 2010 the ODP analysed expenses made on credit cards by federal government officers. They discovered that 11% of all transactions that year were suspicious, requiring further investigation. After the data was published, credit card expenditure dropped by 25%.
Public transparency portals, where citizens can inspect official public spending data, have existed for over ten years in Brazil. But, despite notable successes, transparency in the country is still hampered by the fact that key data, such as lobbying information, is not published, and some of it is poor quality, according to a recent Transparency International report.
Though problems around transparency remain in Brazil, by applying technical expertise to specific data and analysing it for inconsistency, the ODP is able to ask the right questions of government. As in the case of credit card spending, this alone can have a dramatic effect.
By tackling specific problems with particular tools, be it a single platform focused on public works, or analysing specific kinds of spending, government in Latin America is able to fight corruption one step at a time. Transparency brings its own benefits: citizens win a clearer sense of what their societies are building and how they’re progressing. By making the data available, government invites people with the right expertise to ask the questions they may not have considered.
Taken alone, they’re small steps. But for Hochstetler, the cumulative effect of disparate transparency initiatives makes a difference to government’s behaviour. “I wouldn’t point to any single transparency effect,” she said. “Even if we have the old corrupt politicians back, they’ve got to be realising that it’s going to be harder to cover this stuff up than it used to be.” (Picture credit: Flickr/Mauricio Macri)