I Paid a Bribe. So What?

I Paid a Bribe

As is often the case for many people these days, the first time I saw the Indian version of “I Paid a Bribe” I was quite excited about it. The overarching principle is simple: if you paid a bribe, you report it (it’s more than that, but you can check it out on the website for yourself).

I find these websites particularly interesting in the sense that anger and frustration (in that case having to pay a bribe) may be good drivers of action, as suggested by some political behavior research (see for instance here and here).

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to discover through the website that there are already four other websites of this kind (in Kenya, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Pakistan) and two others are to be launched soon (in Philippines and Mongolia). Although scalability has very little to do with impact – a point that is often ignored – it is always good to find out that people in other places are trying to actually do something to tackle corruption.



Nevertheless, it is still not clear for me what the working hypothesis of these websites is (let alone their actual impact). Or, as pseudo-intellectuals nowadays put it, I am not sure what their “theory of change” is. Below is a non-comprehensive list of how these websites may be – hypothetically – efficient in the reduction of corruption:

1) By giving visibility to corruption, governments are more likely to take effective measures to reduce corruption.

2) Public agents will be less likely to ask for bribes given the possibility that their act may be publicly reported.

3) Individuals and societal agents themselves will mobilize against corruption as they realize that corruption is an endemic problem in their country.

The different hypotheses are by no means mutually exclusive. However, singling out each one of them is important for at least three reasons.

First, clarifying the mechanism through which one expects to address an issue facilitates the development of a more efficient strategy. For instance, if what you expect is that government will be more likely to take action once corruption is publicized, you should deploy specific actions towards governmental actors who are in positions to make a difference.

Second, understanding the underlying mechanisms by which change is expected to happen provides us with a reality check of how effective these initiatives may actually be. Will politicians and government officials become more inclined to combat corruption once they “find out” that there is too much corruption in the country? Will public officials be less likely to engage in corrupt activities due to the fact that it can be reported on a third party website? The answers to these questions are not as straightforward as they might appear to be, and identifying any change on that front may be particularly challenging.

This brings us to a third and particularly important issue, which refers to assessing the impact of these initiatives. Surely, measuring the effect that such websites may have on the overall level of corruption in a country is a complicated task. For instance, supposing such websites gain significant popularity in their countries, the increased visibility of corruption may have a seemingly paradoxical effect: while the actual number of corruption cases may decrease as the risk of publicization becomes a real one, citizens may come to perceive increases in levels of corruption as cases that previously would have been undisclosed come to their attention. In that case, for example, the use of the corruption perception index would be of little utility to assess variance in corruption levels across countries.

Nevertheless, finding alternative methods to track the impact of these initiatives is only possible if one has a clear understanding of the ways in which these innovations are supposed to operate in order to have an impact on corruption. For example, if we expect government to take action as the issue gains visibility, tracking the real number of administrative procedures (e.g. investigations, sanctions) related to corruption might be a start (although more would be needed to infer any causality).

The difficulty of assessment is clear, particularly for organizations that are in many cases under-resourced and struggling to keep their operations going. But not doing it will always be counter-productive in the long term. Without any evidence of impact, as sexy as these initiatives may seem, they will not survive the “so what” question.

14 thoughts on “I Paid a Bribe. So What?

  1. We just had a similar discussion last week at Sunlight, and I started in a similarly skeptical place, and ended up somewhere very different.

    First, I don’t think everything needs to be justified by a coherent theory of change, and that traditional NGO approaches to basically everything will fail all sufficiently ingranular impact measurements. And I have little faith in impact measurements. So, right off the bat, I think “we experimented with self-expression online and learned some things about how people work online” would be sufficient impact to justify what these sites are.

    But leaving that point about impact measurement aside, our discussion ended up illuminating a separate potential kind of impact. You identify 1) raising the issue’s profile, 2) changing public officials’ incentives, and 3) mobilizing individuals.

    The less quantifiable mechanism I ended up thinking about was the following: the social act itself of publicly reporting a bribe may change one’s relationship to bribing. If corruption in a place like India is entrenched, complex, and cultural (as I suspect it is), then this is a long term, complex, cultural fight. If Ipaidabribe encourages people to take the small but revolutionary act of saying they paid a bribe, and further implying that that act was inappropriate, then that’s cultural impact.

    I suspect that shifting cultural norms will be extraordinarily difficult to measure, but if they were easily quantifiable, that ipaidabribe sites would make a statistically significant contribution to shifting cultural norms.

    I expect that ipaidabribe occasionally validates empowered actors, but even if it didn’t, I think projects like it are worthwhile because they normalize publicly normative statements about corruption being wrong. It’s difficult for me to assert this with any confidence, especially because I don’t come from a culture where I’ve ever experienced petty bribery, but it reminds me of other similar projects (the “hollaback” app comes to mind” that encourage a shift in consciousness about particular situations.

    Even if an ipaidabribe map of reported bribes is more useful as a description of where people live who are more likely to have heard of the project, there’s utility in the social act itself, which will likely defy quantitative measurement, but could still create significant impact.

    In a nutshell, that’s why I fear people lending too much credence to ROI questions — it gives priority to things that are plannable and measurable, when the things we do that cause the most good so often are neither.

    • Thank you John for your comment. I will try to address your points as best I can.

      First, I regret if – by any chance – my message came across as if ROI is the only thing that matters. In fact, I am very much inclined to value the non-instrumental (i.e. normative) dimension of these initiatives. In this sense, I think that “I Paid a Bribe” is already a good thing as a space for both individual expression and collective statement of normative positions.

      You mention a likely effect of using the website which refers to change in attitudes towards the act of paying a bribe. I fully agree with you that it is an extremely valid outcome independent of its impact on corruption as a whole in the short and medium terms. However, I am not so sure that these are not quantifiable (or identifiable) effects. For instance, there is good research on measuring changes in political efficacy that could provide some leads on how to measure the effects you mention. Some cheap – but well-designed – surveys, for instance, could help identify changes in attitudes (and behaviour?) with the act of reporting bribery online.

      This brings me to another question regarding what I understand as impact assessment in this context. I am not necessarily referring to fancy quantitative methods or randomised evaluations. Just trying to figure out who is using the websites, how they found out about it and identifying potential changes in attitudes would already be a major step forward in knowing a bit more about whether “good things” are happening or not. Tobias Escher’s work with MySociety is illustrative of what can be done to go beyond anecdotal evidence and conjectures.

      To conclude, I agree with you that many things that cause the most good are not measurable. But if we want to extract more potential from actions, we should do our best to understand why and how things happen. Even when it looks like a long shot.

  2. As I’ve argued from the start, the site could be stronger if it reconceptualised itself around the idea of “I want my bribe money back”.

    Obviously you can’t extract stolen money from people using a website, but by setting up the workflow and the branding about the idea of actually getting your cash back would – I think – increase the attractiveness of the service to normal people, and give it a more clear sense of political purpose.

  3. I couldn’t agree more Tom. My feeling is that even just the possibility of money being returned and tracking governments’ responsiveness to that would boost external political efficacy. Which is somewhat similar to what happens with the lottery. Spot on.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post on this, Tiago. These questions about identifying the impact and incentive structures for participation in such sites make me think that what needs to be done, and it wouldn\’t be very hard, is gather a lot more information. Someone needs to sit down on Skype and conduct interviews with the teams behind and participants in such sites.

    Here’s an example to demonstrate why this is important: I recently spoke with someone in Pakistan who is thinking about replicating I Paid a Bribe (the Pakistani version you linked to is kind of dead on arrival), and he mentioned that in his own preparatory work he spoke with the I Paid a Bribe team.

    A key member of that team, according to him (I haven\’t verified this), has an extensive network of contacts within local law enforcement, and is therefore well situated to create actions in response to reports of petty bribery. If this is true, then I Paid a Bribe is, in fact, validating empowered actors, or the threat of it doing so is present…we *just didn’t know it*.

    These mechanisms may be at play elsewhere, but close watchers of technology and citizen participation and democracy won\’t know it unless they ask.

    • Definitely Susannah,

      I agree with you that interviews would already be great with helping to better understand these initiatives. I would complement that with you an online survey of users.

      Not really resource intensive is it?

      • No I don’t think it would be very resource intensive, but I do think it should be implemented by an external actor. And an online survey of participants would be great but I’d worry about participation fatigue on the part of the users.

      • Susannah, participation fatigue is relative: only the users who are willing will respond to the survey.The sample will not be perfect, but will be better than nothing. Even if there is some risk of participation fatigue – which I doubt – the trade-offs would be worth it in my opinion. I agree that the survey should be ideally implemented by an external actor, but if that’s not the case, I’d still go ahead and do it myself.

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