Digitalization as a tool for good governance and corruption prevention

December 9, 2020

The citizens of the Municipality of Gostivar can now use e-kiosks to access municipal services

Corruption and the provision of effective democratic representation are often among the most important issues faced by local governments. Corruption affects the performance of local governments, distorts the allocation of local resources and erodes public trust in institutions and the rule of law. Addressing risks of corruption is crucial for local governments to build effective, accountable and transparent systems that are able to efficiently deliver services.

UNDP has been supporting North Macedonia for more than a decade in its endeavor to establish an efficient system for local self-government and to crate a systemic and practical solutions for combatting the corruption at the local level. UNDP’s Citizen Satisfaction Surveys demonstrate that the biggest dissatisfaction among the citizens is with the citizens' acknowledgment of the municipal budget spending, but also with dealing with corruption (2019 Report). Citizens evaluate the democratic governance, transparency and accountability of their local government for with a score below 3 out of 5. 44% of citizens expressed dissatisfaction with information they receive on municipal budget spending. The dissatisfaction is even worse in regard to the pandemic, with only 10% of citizens responding that they are satisfied with the he transparency of budgetary spending for the handling the COVID-19 crisis.

The causes of corruption at the local level vary, but the common ground for the misuse of power can be related to three elements:

  • Pervasive incentives (unpredictability of administrative procedures used to provide public services, low quality public administration, non-merit-based promotions and appointments, lack of efficiency etc.)
  • Low level of transparency and lack of information (the aura of secrecy)
  • Lack of accountability (related to monopoly of power and impunity)

In its efforts to support local governments to prevent corruption at the local level, UNDP has and is supporting different actions that aim to address the above identified elements:

  • Supporting the overall decentralization reform with clear definition of functional responsibilities and simplification of administrative procedures and strengthening of the oversight roles at the local level (municipal councils, municipal internal auditors, inspectorate for local self-government).
  • Increasing skills, capacities, and capabilities at all levels of government.
  • Supporting responsive and inclusive policies and implementing methods for delivering public services more efficiently and in a transparent manner.
  • Advocating for and supporting the practice of evidence-based policy making.

With the pressure created by the COVID-19 crisis to accelerate the pace of digitalization in nearly all aspects of society, digitalization is also increasingly being recognized as a valuable tool in corruption prevention. In North Macedonia, UNDP is introducing digital tools to support an increased level of transparency, accountability, accessibility and inclusion at the local government level – all essential principles for both corruption prevention and good governance. The urgent responses required to respond to the COVID-19 pandemics have reinforced the risks of corruption, so our focus in the past few months was to support local governments to reman open and inclusive and to continue their efforts in enabling meaningful participation. 

Accountability, transparency and participation

Informing people is an essential tool for achieving accountability, transparency and participation. The information systems have significant impact of government and civil society. In the frameworks of our projects aimed at supporting the reforms of the local self-government system we have introduced innovative and practical tools and approaches aimed at including people in policymaking, digital tools to track public revenue and expenditures, participatory tools, and techniques for developing and monitoring local budgets. UNDP’s actions in this area are part of a long-term strategy to strengthen check and balance and to create informed knowledge, effective oversight mechanisms, and transparent leadership at the local level.

Live streaming hardware installed in a municipal council hall

Increasing the accountability of municipal councils through web streaming

With support from our Swiss partners, UNDP worked with Municipal Councils’ to increase their transparency and accountability through web streaming of Councils’ sessions in 18 municipalities. UNDP supported 18 municipalities with the installation of web streaming equipment, enabling municipal councils to live-stream their council sessions on their official Facebook and You Tube accounts. This helps to significantly improve their transparency and accountability towards the citizens, especially now that COVID-19 has made physical attendance a health hazard. This is only a small part of a wider Swiss-funded project implemented by UNDP that seeks to empower municipal councils to engage citizens in local development through a Community Forums model. UNDP supports the implementation of more than 30 projects in 24 municipalities which were prioritized and selected by the citizens trough these Community Forums. As of 2018, more than 7,500 citizens in 24 municipalities attended a total of 100 forum sessions, to discuss and select priority projects in their communities in an open, transparent and participative manner. This strengthening of local participatory democracy is very effective in reducing corruption and increasing trust between citizens and their local governments.

Increasing financial transparency of local governments through an electronic dashboard

UNDP supported the introduction of an e-dashboard to 24 municipalities in the country which provides transparent financial information and allows for improved civic monitoring of municipal budgeting processes. It is a practical platform for sharing financial data in a manner that is understandable for those who are not specialized in the subject area (councilors and citizens). The e-dashboard collects and visually presents data around the following indicators: revenues, expenditures, liabilities, as well as quarterly and annual financial data on municipal budget execution. This added layer of transparency promotes good governance and guards against corruption.

Digital tools for more accessible, corruption-free public service delivery

Through a public call aimed at local developers, we partnered with the North Macedonia’s Fund for Innovation and Technological Development to pilot the introduction of digital solutions for the electronic payment of taxes and public services, and the creation of online platforms for digital community forums and volunteering. These digital tools are currently being piloted in five municipalities – Centar Zupa, Bogovinje, Sveti Nikole, Prilep and Kumanovo. The tools make it easier for citizens to access public services, especially in a pandemic, but they also reduce the opportunities for small-time corruption in public administration by removing some of the human gatekeepers from the process. Small-time corruption (bribery, nepotism, etc.) during the process of accessing public services is among the most common forms of corruptions citizens encounter directly and one that hinges almost entirely on the human factor in that process. By reducing the human factor to a minimum, digitalization reduces the opportunities to engage in corrupt behavior both on the side of administrative staff and on the side of citizens seeking to access public services.

One UNDP-supported example of digital access to public services that’s already fully operational is the issuing of documents and the processes of public services payment through electronic kiosk’s that were installed in the Gostivar municipality. The e-kiosks work like ATMs through which the citizens can obtain any municipality-issued personal document or form as well as pay for public services such as bills, taxes or fees.

Breakdown of municipal revenues on Centar's participative budgeting platform

Improving transparency, accountability and citizens participation in decision making through a web application for participative budgeting

Among the best examples of participatory budgeting tools we have supported is the web application developed for the Municipality of Centar. Citizens of Centar Municipality are able to participate in the budgeting process by using a specially designed web application that provides them with information on budget revenues, expenditures and with a module for citizens’ participation in the process of budget preparation. This level of financial transparency and citizen participation in municipal budgeting is unprecedented in the country and its continued can set a new standard for transparency, accountability and citizens participation in local governance.

The future of corruption prevention

Digital tools and spaces will continue to play an increasingly important role in our lives and with that, in the ways we engage with public institutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend, giving us ample opportunities to quickly expand our anti-corruption toolbox with new digital tools for supporting good governance and the fight against corruption. Though the logic of corruption prevention and reduction remains essentially unchanged, the ubiquity of digital tools in our everyday lives provides new options for putting that logic into practice.

Public institutions often excuse their lack of transparency, accountability and their disengagement with citizens on the grounds that it is too difficult of a logistical challenge to keep citizens constantly informed and included in governance. Citizens also tend to excuse their lack of participation on the same grounds, claiming that following the work of their local government and taking part in its processes is too difficult and time-consuming. While there is validity to these claims, the new level of transparency and easy of engagement made possible by the ubiquity of digital tools make such excuses increasingly less credible.

We should nevertheless be mindful that digitalization creates new logistical challenges in expanding a society’s digital infrastructure so that all citizens can equally benefit from the new opportunities it provides. Rapid digitalization without considerations for equity risks shutting out citizens that find themselves on the other side of the digital divide. Citizens that lack stable internet access or the digital literacy required to use digital tools must be considered. Leaving no one behind requires that the expanded use of digital tools in governance is supported by efforts to expand access to digital infrastructure and the skills needed to use it effectively.

We must also be aware that digitalization alone is not enough. It is a piece of a bigger puzzle that requires us to realign incentives, to build skills, capacities and capabilities in public institutions and to strengthen tried and tested good governance practices. Digitalization can be used as a catalyst that can ease and accelerate the adoption of more conventional anti-corruption approaches and should therefore by applies as part of a broader, comprehensive anti-corruption strategy.

Regardless of what the future holds, we must endeavor to think of corruption as more than a cause of negative societal outcomes, but also as a consequence of such outcomes. Corruption reinforces a vicious cycle that degrades the effectiveness of public institutions and our trust in their ability to deliver on their end of the social contract. As we work to accelerate progress towards the 2030 Agenda by improving the quality of live for people all over the world, we are also working to remove some of the societal pressures that incentivize corrupt behavior, whether through poverty elimination, the reduction of inequalities or the strengthening of institutions that facilitate peace and justice. It will be the by strength of these efforts that we ultimately break out of the shackles of corruption, but we can increasingly rely on digital tools to help make our “escape” easier.