Over on the Democracy Spot blog, Tiago Peixoto started a thought-provoking conversation about the impact of websites like I paid a bribe that encourage citizens to report cases of corruption (both the blog post and the comments are well worth a read). How can we assess whether these sites make a difference?
I thought it might be useful to add my (admittedly, biased!) two cents to the debate based on my experience working on Kallxo.com, a project that encourages citizens to report cases of corruption in Kosovo via a Ushahidi-based platform.
Kallxo is still at too early a stage of development for a thorough assessment of its impact, (after four months, over 300 cases reported, more than 36,200 page views, and 3,600 “Likes” on Facebook) but, to Tiago’s point, I like to think that we had a theory of change in mind when we set out to develop the project together with our partners. Here are some of its tenets:
1. Complex problems benefit from a variety of skills
Kallxo is implemented by a consortium of civil society organizations, media and private sector representatives. This has allowed us to draw on the specific expertise of each partner organization – an important prerequisite to tackle a complex issue such as corruption.
Each of the members of the consortium is a recognized leading institution in its field in Kosovo, whether it is developing information technology (IT) solutions, performing investigative journalism, conducting baseline and perception surveys, publishing politically sensitive articles or collaborating with key stakeholders.
2. Trust and social infrastructure come before IT
Enhancing transparency and accountability requires deep change in society and decision makers. Technology, if used effectively, is only an enabling tool, but not a driving force.
Having strong implementing partners from civil society, media or the private sector who can follow up on the information provided by citizens and hold responsible authorities accountable is fundamental to create desired change and gain citizen trust.
Without the trust of citizens, individuals will not consider the platform a reliable tool where they can report corruption. Working with strong and reliable partners has also been important to ensure active stakeholder participation in project meetings and consultations.
3. Getting the relevant authorities on board
As Tiago noted, “clarifying the mechanism through which one expects to address an issue facilitates the development of a more efficient strategy.”
In our case, Kallxo.com was designed from the very beginning as a tool to mobilize and facilitate the intervention of public officials. Yet we know that they are often reluctant towards innovation and change. Working towards creating more transparency can be seen as a threat rather than a benefit.
Sensitizing public sector officials and demonstrating the clear benefits the initiative can bring to their respective institution has been pivotal to the project.
To get buy-in already at the planning stage of the project, it was crucial to involve public sector institutions – responsible for taking follow-up action based on the reports of citizens – from the beginning.
Equally important is brokering collaboration between the Government and civil society organizations (CSOs), which naturally address an issue from different angles.
Establishing a functioning partnership between CSOs and the Government – and creating a mechanism through which citizens can use CSOs as a “proxy” – seems to be the way forward to guarantee that voices are heard.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
In an environment where corruption is visible at all layers of society, and where corrupt officials are not being held accountable, citizens are becoming more and more skeptical about how much they can actually contribute to creating change.
Implementing a project of this nature that is dependent on the participation and contribution from citizens, involves a high risk of failing due to lack of interest, commitment and faith from individuals to create change.
To mitigate such risk, the project has conducted a series of highly visible awareness raising and social mobilization campaigns. Using traditional and social media tools to promote the platform has been crucial to attract a significant number of citizens to report cases of corruption.
Initiatives of a similar nature should consider allocating a fair amount of resources towards producing campaigns and advertisements to complement the technical aspects of the project (developing a platform) with the social aspects (mobilizing citizens).
5. Mobilizing sufficient funding
Again, when implementing a project of this nature that depends on the participation and contribution from citizens, follow up action to the reports provided on the platform is fundamental to achieve long term results.
Without taking action, citizens will soon lose interest and stop reporting. If an established platform is successful and attracts a significant number of citizen reports, processing the information and maintaining the platform will require adequate financial investment.
Therefore it goes almost without saying, that having sufficient financial resources available is key to achieving objectives. In the long term, it would be overly optimistic to expect the implementing organization(s) to work on a voluntary basis.
6. Prototyping as a way to reduce risk
The initiative was informed by the approach that has proven to be most successful in terms of social media platform development, namely: rapid prototyping based on clearly defined problems and challenges. The emphasis was put on developing a basic prototype as fast and as cheaply as possible.
The prototype allows stakeholders to provide input, and add functionalities based on user feedback. Once the prototype was considered successful, it was scaled up. This approach has the major advantage of lowering risks and costs by helping to identify very early the obstacles that might prevent adoption by users.
7. Screening reported cases
Web platforms accessible to every citizen come with risks. Misusing such platforms to harm individuals or specific organizations through false reporting and discrediting is not uncommon and can lead to the platform losing its purpose and credibility.
In order to avoid such misuse, every report submitted to Kallxo.com is edited in compliance with applicable media legislation and is screened before it is published. This can slow down the work of the implementing partners as it takes time to edit and verify the information reported by citizens.
So, back to Tiago’s question: I paid a bribe, so what? I can point to at least a couple of examples that illustrate the key tenets above in action:
A citizen in possession of marijuana was stopped by two police officers while driving his private vehicle. After the officers asked for 300 euros in order not to report the case, the citizen decided to report the case on www.kallxo.com. The kallxo.com team reported the case to the Kosovo Police Inspectorate, which, within three hours, managed to arrest the police officers. The case was filmed and broadcast on 16 September 2012. After the TV report was aired, many other cases were reported, which were related to other police officers, who are now being investigated by the Kosovo Police Inspectorate and the Pristina prosecutor’s office.
Kallxo.com also received a case related to the organization of a high school excursion, where a tender was signed with a company who had connections with a municipal public official. While Kallxo.com investigated the case, it was also reported to the prosecutor’s office of the relevant municipality. As a result, the prosecutor started an investigation into the director of the Education Department of the municipality. The TV report was broadcast on 23 September.
The platform also received a report of high level officials in a municipality that started a company and after only two months won a tender from the same municipality to carry out security services. The Kosovo Anti-corruption Agency is now investigating the case.
We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project, and we’d love to hear from others who are working on similar initiatives.
*Hereafter referred to in the context of UN Security Resolution 1244/1999