How the Indian rail website accidentally stops bribery

A train in India riding on tracks.
The Indian rail system is incredibly impressive, and employs 1.4 million people. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

John, Ellen and I are in Bangalore, India for the inaugural Coalition Against Corruption Summit. It’s been inspiring to learn how other people working on missions similar to Sunlight’s. (So far, Justice Santosh Hegde’s talk about mining industry corruption in Karnataka and Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar’s virtuosic knowledge of Indian campaign finance particularly stick out in my mind.)

But surprisingly, one of the most interesting ideas about corruption that I’ve run into here came not during the conference, but as John and I tried to figure out how to book train tickets. From the extremely helpful

Reservations are now completely computerised. Indeed, according to an Indian professor with whom I shared a compartment, computerisation saved him 50% of his travel costs as he had always had to pay the same again in bribes to get a reservation!

In the U.S. it sometimes seems as if opengov is split into two worlds. There are efforts to improve democracy and accountability — watchdogging databases, advocacy campaigns, and legislative transparency sites; and there are a ton of exciting projects to make government service delivery work better — apps for reporting potholes, websites for getting business licenses and APIs for parking spaces.

The automation of the Indian rail system is a nice reminder that these worlds aren’t as distinct as it sometimes seems. A well-engineered interface to services can not only make them more accessible and efficient, but more equitable and just, too. And, of course, that can’t happen unless the people in charge of building those systems are held accountable for delivering meaningful improvements to the way government works.