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Crowdsourcing to Fight Corruption: Aleksei Navalny and the RosPil Experiment

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NavalnyA few weeks ago, Russia’s most popular and controversial opposition figure, anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, was tossed in prison on charges of conspiring to steal money from a state owned lumber corporation -- only to be set free less than a day later pending action from a higher court. The shocking turn of events has once again thrust Navalny and his campaign against public sector corruption into the global limelight. While Navalny’s legal future may occupy the headlines, we wanted to focus on Navalny’s anti-corruption website RosPil, a state procurement monitoring site where troves of government contracts and tenders are scrutinized by eager volunteers searching for signs of corruption.

Corruption is an enormous political and economic problem in Russia. Most of the corruption, which effectively cuts the country’s growth rate in half according to economists Sergey Guriyev and Oleg Tsyvinsky, is tied up in the government's procurement system. Former President Medvedev’s administration suggested that upwards of 1 trillion rubles are embezzled through the state acquisition process every year. According to the World Bank, Russia’s 2012 GDP was little over 66 trillion rubles, making the approximate amount siphoned off to crooked officials and individuals through corrupt procurement processes over 1.5% of the country’s total economic output.

It is this rampant corruption that Aleksei Navalny, who is well known for his brand of tech-empowered protest, is trying to stamp out. A 37 year old real estate lawyer, Navalny began blogging about anti-corruption issues as a hobby, but quickly attracted a loyal cadre of mostly young, liberal individuals who were drawn to his ideals and apparent disregard for the common fate of corruption whistleblowers in Russia. While Navalny continues to blog frequently about corruption, his popularity has well outgrown his humble blogger roots and made him a political aspirant considering bids for Mayor of Moscow and even for President. These political aspirations have made many civil society activists question his motivations and the intent of his crowdsourcing strategy. Navalny has also been the subject of much criticism regarding his purportedly nationalist leanings.

Political aspirations aside, Navalny’s most effective anti-corruption project is RosPil, a website that compiles suspicious government contracts to be reviewed by the public, a crowdsourced attempt to bring accountability and integrity to a broken state procurement system.

According to this New Yorker article, Navalny was motivated to start the RosPil site when he was given information on a Ministry of Health and Information contract to build a 2 million dollar software platform connecting patients and doctors. The contract was to be completed in sixteen days, an absurdly short timeframe that clearly signaled corruption. Navalny wrote about the contract on his blog for several days straight, inciting public outrage. A few posts later, the contract was annulled and the official responsible for it removed from office.

To further leverage this kind of public outrage, Navalny started RosPil. The site draws government documents from primarily public sources. Ironically, RosPil has benefitted from Medvedev’s anti-corruption strategy to post government contracts online -- the result of a campaign promise to fight corruption. The National Anti-Corruption Plan signed by Medvedev in April 2010 states that the government will provide funding to use “innovative technologies” to make the state procurement system more transparent. This new plan included posting government contracts online, a policy that Navalny has been able to exploit with RosPil. (According to Sunlight’s global research on procurement disclosure practices, Russia’s procurement system is surprisingly transparent.)

RosPilHere’s how the site works: once the documents are posted on the site, they are reviewed by the thousands of individuals who visit the site everyday. If any of them seem to be particularly suspect, the contract will be flagged for review by the site’s experts, lawyers who receive modest compensation through donations made to the site. In the case that there does appear to be corruption, the lawyers will file a lawsuit and submit a complaint to the relevant government agency. All contracts that are found to be corrupt are posted on the sites front page, providing a public archive of corruption in Russia that feeds public frustration.

The site has been successful in anuling corrupt contracts and bringing more attention to the rampant culture of impunity that is strangling the Russian economy. According to Anton Nossik, one of Navalny’s colleagues, 7 contracts were annulled in the site’s first three months of operation, amounting to nearly 337 million rubles saved.

Despite this success, many civil society activists criticize Navalny’s approach. One common criticism is that RosPil’s populist, crowdsourcing approach simplifies a complex government procurement system and fails to ask the tough questions about real reform. Such a model effectively draws attention to the issue of corruption -- and, not coincidentally, to Navalny’s political brand -- but, as many Russian activists have argued, the site’s value ends there. Some have also voiced concerns that the site finds errors in the procurement system that are not necessarily linked to corruption.

While Navalny’s intentions and RosPil’s effectiveness may be questionable, there are some important lessons to learn from the experiment. First, it reveals the potential power of an informed public to tackle government corruption. Once corrupt contracts are brought to light, it takes only a critical mass of public anger to make the necessary changes. While this approach may be limited to small, incremental change, it seems a necessary step on the road to deeper, more meaningful anti-corruption reform. Second, the work of the inept and unwilling government agencies responsible for anti-corruption could be replicated in-part by a dedicated group of citizen volunteers. Tech-empowered crowdsourcing is at the heart of the RosPil model: it keeps costs down, makes it harder for the government to censor their work, and effectively tracks thousands of government documents using the knowledge of thousands of participants.

Despite Navalny’s polarizing politics, his efforts to shine light on Russia’s corrupt procurement system provides a valuable anecdote when considering the power of crowdsourcing in the fight against corruption.

 (To read more from Sunlight on government procurement policies, check out this post on international procurement standards and this one on US local government procurement.)

(Photo by Yuri Timofeyev via Flickr Commons)