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Corruption and eGovernment

A hot topic on the 2005 Asia eGovernment Summit was corruption. All government officials present (Singapore didn't send one) admitted, that it is a huge problem in their respective country. One representative from the Philippines shared how they use eGovernment to curb bribery. Citizen in the Philippines can (like in many other countries) submit their tax declaration online. Not seeing a tax collector face to face eliminates the opportunity to bribe him. They also run an anonymous website, that is directly linked to the government fraud fighting agency. If you are a danger seeker - they have job openings.
In Singapore corruption is not a problem. The few cases that pop up are swiftly dealt with and end up with free accommodation in bar filtered air. When having a closer look at this zero tolerance policy you will notice, that it is only the final brick in the dam that stops corruption. The first layer here is a British style administration, that has been perfected by the Singapore Chinese, the second is the pay of the civil servants, that enables a decent life (for a minister that would be a decent 1M SGD). So it is easy to successfully take the moral high ground.
The picture becomes very different when you look in the surrounding countries. We had some good discussions and found, that you need to differentiate what exactly is happening when money changes hands. In most emerging countries taking a bribe supplements the meagre pay of a public servant, who's paycheck is growing much slower than the money earned in the private sector. Secondly especially in South-East Asia there is a culture to give presents when visiting each other. This presents are an expression of appreciation and are not seen as a bribe (unless you take the moral high ground). So drawing the line becomes more difficult. When you want to classify bribes you could distinguish three levels (I like that scheme, since it provides hooks how to handle them and it was my idea):
First a bribes that speed up a process, that would happen anyway. From what I have heard, that is actually the bulk of bribes given. Give a little fee to the officer and your visa application doesn't take four weeks but two, give a little more and it will be done in three days.
The second type are bribes to get an officer to do what he is supposed to so but threatens to procrastinate. This is basically public service blackmail.
The third type are bribes to achieve a result that is illegal or violates regulations and bylaws (most rampant in construction industry and in tender processes).
I personally consider the first type relative harmless by itself, but damaging since it lowers the shy to do the two other types as well. The Chinese came up with a clever scheme in their embassies to remove that "token to speed up the application". They made it official: there are different fees to be paid for different speeds of your application processing. You get a official formal receipt. It is kind of a service level agreement. This way there is no wiggling room for the officers to ask extra "speed money". Once this type of bribes has dried up, it becomes easier to get tough on the other both types.
To curb the procrastination black mail transparency and business process modelling can be the weapon of choice: let citizens know how long a process should take (with a given bandwidth) and provide an escalation path if deadlines are not met. Sounds easy but is tricky to implement, since government processes tend to be rather blurry.
For the last type then a zero tolerance policy with established graft fighting measures can help. However every coin has two sides. One typical method are tender requirements for expenditures exceeding a certain size. There is an incredible amount of money wasted for tender preparation since in a median cut you only win 2-5% of tenders you work on... and that project have to recover your opportunity cost, so they get more expensive. So the goal of fighting corruption sometimes clashes with the mandate to use resources efficiently.

Posted by on 21 October 2005 | Comments (0) | categories: Business


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