Five opengov takeaways from the Coalition Against Corruption Conference

A photo of the stage at the 2014 Coalition Against Corruption Conference in Bangalore, India.
The 2014 Coalition Against Corruption Conference. Photo credit: Sunlight Foundation

Last month John, Ellen and I headed to Bangalore for the inaugural Coalition Against Corruption Conference. CoCo 2014 was a fascinating event where we learned about the challenges and opportunities facing reformers from around the world. All of us at Sunlight were immensely proud to join Janaagraha and Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law as sponsoring partners.

Subsequent travel, ten-plus hours of jetlag and a mountain of email mean that this dispatch is a little belated. On the other hand, the delay has given me a chance to mull over the conversations and presentations that occurred in Bangalore. It would be impossible to fully summarize the experience, but I’ve found my thoughts returning to a few themes in the days since:

  • Money in politics is a problem everywhere — in some ways, the US is ahead of the pack. The depth of expertise among Indian campaign finance reformers was consistently impressive, as was the familiarity of the problems they faced, like the quasi-official nature of political parties and the lack of transparency around funding sources. But the tension between controlling the pernicious effects of political spending and preserving freedom of political expression may not have come to the fore as clearly as they have at home. Spending dark money outside of the political party apparatus is an “innovation” that hasn’t yet spread as far as I expected.
  • Path dependence is hugely important to reform efforts. Developers know this concept all too well, though often by different names: technical debt, legacy costs, vendor lock-in. It’s the reason why people hate Internet Explorer; it’s the reason I’ve never run a Python 3 program. Once something is up and running, it becomes very difficult to change it. Listening to Mathias Huter discuss reforms in the Republic of Georgia was a useful reminder of how jarring reform can be. The Saakashvili administration fired 30,000 police officers in one day — the bulk of the force. Hiring a completely new force and instilling norms of professionalism seem to have yielded real improvements (though nothing’s perfect). But the displacement was real, including that of the fired officers (and others removed from the rest of the Georgian bureaucracy). Those people weren’t all villains, and they haven’t all had a soft landing. There are real costs to making things better, which is one of the reasons why it’s so hard. Clean slates are precious.
  • The opengov world is moving fast. Many of you will have already seen Janaagraha’s bribe trends infographics. But with its Crowdsourced Retail Bribery Index (CRBI), it has brought sophisticated economic techniques to bear on their data, helping to quantify the problem of retail corruption by sector and city. It’s inspiring work. Similarly, The I Paid A Bribe network has spread far and fast. Take a look at the original site‘s international nav in the upper right. I count 23 launched or soon-to-launch countries. Of particular interest to those of us pursuing international transparency work is the variety of software and layouts in use. Many use the core IPAB code and branding with relatively minor modifications, of course, but plenty do not. Watching this ecosystem evolve is going to be fascinating to those curious about how to make opengov software projects scale internationally.
  • Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s okay. Thinking about the problems of the American political system can be exhausting. It’s easy to see that our system isn’t working well, but hard to point to any outright lawbreaking that makes it so —harder still to come up with ideas for reform that are workable or haven’t failed before. But being exposed to the passion and dedication of reformers who are making real progress in a completely different and in many ways more challenging environment was a welcome reminder that change is possible. Things don’t have to be this way.
  • International collaboration will be essential. While forms of corruption vary enormously from country to country, there are some themes that are universal. Corruption undermines public institutions, wastes resources and alters democratic self-governance to everyone’s detriment. More important, though, is that there’s a universal will to create transparency and public integrity even in the face of daunting odds. We are inspired to be better-connected to organizers and developers from around the world taking on similar fundamental problems. And we’re heartened to see international collaboration beginning to strengthen everyone’s hand, raising our expectations for accountable democracies, and helping to demonstrate potential approaches for reform.

So: a great conference, and an exciting chance to learn about a new community. Do yourself a favor and follow Janaagraha (and @Liberationtech, though that probably goes without saying) on Twitter.