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.