Transparency and corruption are not always what they appear to be

When Ory Okolloh of Luminate recently posted a blog on their new financial transparency strategy, we emailed her saying that informed disenchantment isn’t necessarily about a lack of accountability, and that poor service delivery wasn’t just about corruption. She asked us what on earth we meant.

As Ory explained in her post, “informed disenchantment” is a growing problem – citizens are becoming disillusioned about the benefits of increased transparency because often no person or institution is held accountable for their actions, even after wrongdoing or mismanagement has been exposed. This is further compounded by a “scandal fatigue” becoming more prevalent every day. We are fast starting to believe politics professor Jonathan Fox’s line that “you can’t shame the shameless.”

But our recent work at the International Budget Partnership South Africa (IBP South Africa) is shedding some new light on these tough questions and in some ways turning our own assumptions upside down.

We’re starting to see that the lack of accountability is only part of the reason for disenchantment. In fact, it’s becoming clear that it is rather a lack of specified or targeted transparency that deepens disinterest; and digging into a finer level of transparency can inspire people to seek deeper transparency and accountability.

Likewise, we are learning that a singular focus on corruption as the primary cause of service delivery or government performance problems can obscure some of the other causes that could be dealt with differently. Scandal fatigue is in some ways a symptom of our own tendency to call every government failure corruption.

Specified transparency is key

A typical situation in our work would go something like this: the local authority wastes a whole lot of money. Residents establish the facts and are shocked and angry. They then come up against a set of institutions that is never held accountable, usually a faceless state bureaucracy or perhaps a mayor’s office. People shrug their shoulders and lose their faith that mobilizing can make any difference and what faith they may still have had in government.

But when residents can identify which specific officials are responsible for services in their area and what exactly they are supposed to be delivering – the effect is electric. It gives the issue a name, a face, and a set of responsibilities. And perhaps even more importantly, it provides a real avenue for people to work towards accountability from the beginning, by directing the challenge at those that are actually responsible for the outcomes and thus making transparency meaningful.

Over the last year IBP South Africa, Planact and the Social Audit Network (with generous support from Luminate, the Delegation of the European Union to South Africa and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa) supported 11 informal settlement communities in Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality, using this approach to undertake social audits on chemical toilets – a social audit is a community-led process of monitoring service delivery on the basis of government commitments contained in budgets and other official documents. Rather than simply dealing with ‘the municipality’, much work went into identifying the specific officials responsible for these government contracts and they were engaged from the beginning by Ekurhuleni residents.

The result was that the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Council completely rewrote the $110 million contract providing sanitation to 600 000 informal settlement residents, and residents were emboldened to engage government on a range of other issues.

Moving beyond corruption as the universal cause

eThekwini Metro in South Africa, where even the mayor has faced criminal charges relating to fraud and corruption, is rightly seen to be extremely corrupt. For some time, IBP South Africa has been working in the city, albeit a little cautiously.

With the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC), we supported residents in the Emalandeni informal settlement (likewise with support from Luminate, the Delegation of the European Union to South Africa and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa) to undertake a social audit on communal ablution blocks provided by the metro. The social audit illuminated the issue of maintenance, and subsequent engagement between community leaders and government brought it to the attention of the responsible officials in the water and sanitation department. We found out that they were simply unaware of the poor state of communal ablution blocks. The social audit report provided the details about what needed fixing and where, and the metro started doing the required maintenance.

This is not to say that there isn’t corruption in eThekwini or to explain away corruption. In this instance, however, shouting about corruption in the media would have been less helpful in terms of actually improving the service. Helping residents get to the specifics of the problem, and engaging the responsible officials directly, ultimately got results.

When corruption is taken to be the cause, the rational response is to expose wrongdoers in the media, hand them over to the courts or approach parliament – and not to engage with them. The result is that other real causes of poor service delivery – such as underfunding, poor coordination, bad communication, or understaffing – can end up being ignored.

More broadly, we should reconsider what is often an instinctive response to shrinking civic space and perceptions of increased government corruption. We find that we get better results by managing the relationship with, and proximity to, government intentionally and as the political context requires. Sometimes, as in the Machiavellian sense, this may mean keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer still.

Albert van Zyl is the Director of Luminate grantee IBP South Africa and Dustin Kramer was the Deputy General Secretary of the Social Justice Coalition, a fellow of the Social Change Initiative, and is currently based in Bogotá, Colombia.

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