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Crowd-Sourcing Corruption: What Petrified Forests, Street Music, Bath Towels and the Taxman Can Tell Us About the Prospects for Its Future

December 06, 2016 by Dieter Zinnbauer

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This article seeks to map out the prospects of crowd-sourcing technologies in the area of corruption-reporting. A flurry of initiative and concomitant media hype in this area has led to exuberant hopes that the end of impunity is not such a distant possibility any more - at least not for the most blatant, ubiquitous and visible forms of administrative corruption, such as bribes and extortion payments that on average almost a quarter of citizens reported to face year in, year out in their daily lives in so many countries around the world (Transparency International 2013). Only with hindsight will we be able to tell, if these hopes were justified. However, a closer look at an interdisciplinary body of literature on corruption and social mobilisation can help shed some interesting light on these questions and offer a fresh perspective on the potential of social media based crowd-sourcing for better governance and less corruption. So far the potential of crowd-sourcing is mainly approached from a technology-centred perspective. Where challenges are identified, pondered, and worked upon they are primarily technical and managerial in nature, ranging from issues of privacy protection and fighting off hacker attacks to challenges of data management, information validation or fundraising. In contrast, short shrift is being paid to insights from a substantive, multi-disciplinary and growing body of literature on how corruption works, how it can be fought and more generally how observed logics of collective action and social mobilisation interact with technological affordances and condition the success of these efforts. This imbalanced debate is not really surprising as it seems to follow the trajectory of the hype-and-bust cycle that we have seen in the public debate for a variety of other technology applications. From electronic health cards to smart government, to intelligent transport systems, all these and many other highly ambitious initiatives start with technology-centric visions of transformational impact. However, over time - with some hard lessons learnt and large sums spent - they all arrive at a more pragmatic and nuanced view on how social and economic forces shape the implementation of such technologies and require a more shrewd design approach, in order to make it more likely that potential actually translates into impact. At a minimum, a trawl through this literature makes it possible to move beyond some of the most common-sense conjectures and develop a few more granular guesses on the future of crowd-sourcing corruption. At best, this approach may help identify some not so obvious challenges that may arise along the way and ensure that they are considered in the design process of future corruption crowd-sourcing interventions, raising their likelihood of impact and sustainable success. The remainder of this essay is structured as follows: Section 1 introduces the concept of crowd-sourcing for good governance. It provides a very brief overview of some related initiatives in this area, alongside some of the challenges and reservations that are commonly raised in the debate. Section 2 casts the net a bit wider. It looks for interesting insight and cues in the broader social science literature on social mobilisation and corruption. Based on this, it seeks to gain a better understanding of what other more fundamental challenges may lay ahead for crowd-reporting corruption. Section 3 picks up on these anticipated challenges and presents some ideas on how to address them, both in the design, as well as in the implementation of future crowd-reporting systems, drawing both on emerging insights from impact assessments of conventional social accountability mechanisms as well as lessons learnt within Transparency International’s own global network of anti-corruption NGOs, some of which already run crowd-reporting platforms.