Electronic Asset Declarations for Public Officials – two years after its launch. A panacea against corruption?

August 25, 2018

Photo: AS photo studio / Shutterstock.com

Originally published by Novoe Vremia Business on August 22.

Two years ago, Ukraine launched an unprecedented electronic asset declaration system for all public officials. The e-declaration system helps to prevent corruption (widely recognized as one of Ukraine’s biggest problems), to avoid conflicts of interest, and to enable citizens to inspect online public officials’ earnings and assets. The system also makes it easier for Ukraine’s new anti-corruption bodies to unearth graft and expose corruption. Introduced by the Law on Corruption just a few weeks before the October 2014 parliamentary elections, anti-corruption experts have hailed the e-declaration system as one of the country’s most important reform achievements.

This week, the National Agency on Corruption Prevention introduced the automatic verification module of electronic declarations, finalizing the architecture of this new system of public-sector transparency. Capable of reviewing and verifying the data consistency of 100,000 declarations within fifteen minutes, the new module will help identify the biggest corruption risks. The question of how effectively it will be used is now fully in the hands of the national law enforcement and judicial authorities.

In the late summer heat of 1 September 2016, Ukraine launched one of the world’s most avant-garde transparency systems: e-declarations for all of its public servants. By publicly disclosing officials’ incomes and assets via an open, directly accessible digital system, the e-declaration system was Ukraine’s breakthrough instrument to prevent corruption.

A requirement of the post-Maidan anti-corruption legislation of Ukraine, the system is managed by the newly established National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP). International advice and assistance was requested at the time before the NACP itself became operational. With financial support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the system’s software development was overseen by a Quality Assurance Group with representatives from the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine, NACP, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). UNDP supported the tool’s development in addition to many other capacity building and institutional efforts to address corruption in Ukraine.  

This unprecedented system to make public servants expose their true wealth was met with scepticism. At the time of the launch two years ago, I was flooded with phone calls: everyone wanted to know how this tool would address corruption while protecting security and personal privacy. In August 2016, both NACP representatives and I spoke in front of many groups and committees — including the Parliamentary Working Group — addressing many concerns and explaining why Ukraine needed this change. I answered many questions about its true value and potential effectiveness.

What has been achieved? 

In March 2017 and again in March 2018, about one million civil servants submitted their declarations, setting an important milestone for transparency and integrity in the country. This has enabled anti-corruption agencies, law enforcement bodies, journalists, civic groups and ordinary citizens to hold public officials accountable for their actions.

The tool has become a widespread phenomenon in just two years. Declarations have included millions of dollars, Swiss watches, diamond jewellery, fur coats, fine porcelain, crystal glassware, an assault rifle and even a ticket to the moon! Notwithstanding the criticism that the e-declarations provoked, the system has brought more transparency to the country and its people.

E-declarations as a chance for a Ukrainian success story

A GfK/UNDP survey conducted in 2017 has revealed that an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (72 percent) have positive or somewhat positive opinions about the system and its resulting transparency. Civil servants who submitted their declarations in 2016 expressed an even higher level of support for the system and its openness (82 percent). More than half of Ukrainians declarants (54 percent) believe that the e-declaration system will increase the number of individuals brought to account for corruption offences. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (60 percent) expect that the e-declaration will improve the situation in the fight against corruption in Ukraine within the next three to five years.

The introduction of the e-declarations marked a turning point in Ukrainian politics and its reform agenda. Many find it obvious that the system is a major step towards greater transparency and a stepping-stone to a change in culture. However, there is still a lot of scepticism. For example, the GfK/UNDP survey revealed that 33 percent of Ukrainians doubt that e-declarations contain full information, believing that declarants disclose only those items that they think might be verified or regard filing an e-declaration as just a formality, and minimizing the assets declared in it.  A lot of scepticism relates to a new (30 March) requirement that anti-corruption activists declare their private assets via the online system in the same way that public officials do. Many international actors, including the Venice Commission, consider these restrictions to be a considerable step backwards in the country’s anti-corruption reform agenda.

More remains to be done

Thanks to this new open-access database, Ukraine is making significant progress in promoting transparency and fighting corruption. Every month, more corruption is being revealed and investigated. So far, NACP has checked the declarations from 370 officials. According to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, there are currently 683 proceedings under investigation; 143 cases have been assigned to the courts. The esults are positive, but still far from what society expects.

What should be done to use the data more efficiently? How should the large amount of information contained in the declarations be handled? NACP has a staff of three dozen working on manually checking the data; each staff member would face the impossible task of reviewing 110 declarations a day to verify one million declarations within a year. There are not even enough staff to perform the annual verification of top officials’ obligatory e-asset declarations.

The last step to make the e-declaration system a fully effective tool for tackling corruption is to use verification software, introduced officially by NACP on Monday, 20 August 20.  The software will be used by NACP to automatically verify uploaded electronic declarations. Doing so will significantly reduce the time needed to review e-declarations. The software will flag any inconsistencies or false information and trigger a full manual verification and investigation by the newly created anti-graft agencies (particularly once the verification software is linked with other state registers).

On 21 June, the Verkhovna Rada legally established the much-anticipated High Anti-Corruption Court, thus completing the creation of the new Ukrainian anti-corruption system. The court, expected to be fully operational by February 2019, will help ensure that anti-corruption cases are properly handled and will bring corrupt officials to justice.  

Although more work needs to be done, the e-declaration system is clearly a major achievement in Ukraine’s pathway to reform. Together with other transparency and accountability measures, the e-asset declaration system aims to rebuild public trust in the state and its representatives. As the country prepares for the upcoming elections, it is important to demonstrate to the citizens of Ukraine how they can contribute to Ukraine’s political reform agenda by making full use of the new transparency tools and systems and by ensuring an honest and open government that serves the interests of the people.