Use the Internet to Fight Local Corruption
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 9, 2012
Summary: Those parts of Taiwan and Fujian under Republic of China jurisdiction include only 22 counties and municipalities.
Yet on a single day, two county chiefs were indicted for corruption. One
was indicted over a procurement scandal. One was arrested for demanding
bribes on a public works project. A whole slew of civil servants,
academics, experts, and relatives were dragged down with them. Taxpayers
watched as these impeccably groomed members of the ruling nomenklatura
negotiated under the table deals. How can they not be disappointed in
the legal system? How can they not be pessimistic watching naked greed
in action? How can they not seek antidotes?
Full Text below:
Those parts of Taiwan and Fujian under Republic of China jurisdiction include only 22 counties and municipalities. Yet on a single day, two county chiefs were indicted for corruption. One was indicted over a procurement scandal. One was arrested for demanding bribes on a public works project. A whole slew of civil servants, academics, experts, and relatives were dragged down with them. Taxpayers watched as these impeccably groomed members of the ruling nomenklatura negotiated under the table deals. How can they not be disappointed in the legal system? How can they not be pessimistic watching naked greed in action? How can they not seek antidotes?
The Republic of China government implemented local autonomy on Taiwan 60 years ago. County and municipal level governments underwent ruling party changes long ago. Within the system we have parliamentary checks and balances. Without the system we have an aggressive media. We have intellectuals concerned about public affairs. We have public interest groups and self-help groups with a high degree of initiative. All these provide checks and balances on government. The executive power is subject to these constraints. County chiefs, city mayors, and other authorities should find embezzlement difficult. But if we local self-government up close and personal, we discover to our dismay that the checks and balances are hollow, and that oversight is not working. Special political and economic interests persist in wanton disregard of the law, and do whatever they wish.
Within the system, county councils and city councils ought to provide effective checks and balances. County councils and city councils have the authority to approve or disapprove budgets. They have the authority to prevent executive waste and abuse of power. They are in a position to expose government abuse of power. They are in a position to challenge the government on behalf of the taxpayers, in accord with the public interest. But in practice these checks and balances have become the very means by which county councils and city council-based special interest groups divvy up the loot. County councils and city councils have their angles. They take advantage of construction projects to distribute political pork. They make sweetheart deals with lobbyists. Businessmen go along to get along with these county councils and city councils. Conversely, businessmen who refuse to play ball find it impossible to receive fair treatment during the bidding process. The result is the hollowing out of parliamentary checks and balances, which have become mere show.
Without the system, the media were once the eyes and ears of the citizens. They provided oversight on the citizens' behalf. They provided a local public affairs forum. But the rise of the Internet has provided us with free information. The traditional media is operating at a loss. It is scaling back operations. It is giving up on the provision of serious content. Reporters seldom cover county council and city council budget reviews. The media seldom reports on such matters. If citizens or citizens groups fail to audit these proceedings, government budgets and their contents will remain unknown. They will be hidden from the light of day. They will become opportunities for government business collusion.
The Government has for sure enacted procurement laws. Tender offers over a certain amount must be posted on the Internet. Major tender offers must be recorded on video. But websites are usually designed for bidding vendors, not the average citizen. The videos of the bidding procedures are merely for backup. They are not made public. They contribute nothing to transparency. From a practical perspective, the higher the visibility, the stricter the constraints. The bidding process should be webcast live, in audio and video formats. Every citizen should be able to listen or watch in real time. The effect would be more powerful than having the Director of the Government Ethics Office in attendance.
Modern digital technology is advanced. Advanced democracies already use digital technology to make the vast amounts of data gathered by the government and the business community available. This promotes open and transparent government. On Taiwan all levels of government use public funds to collect all sorts of raw data. This process must be made as open as possible. It must be made convenient for taxpayers to use. For example, the more that environmental data is made available to public interest groups, the more environmentalists will be able to use the data to protect the environment. The more that police departments provide law enforcement and traffic data, the easier it will be for citizens to avoid violating county and municipal laws.
Current county chiefs and city mayors stand on the front lines. They deal with public opinion. They must remain close to the people. They are surrounded by council factions, special interest groups, ward heelers, wealthy king-makers, and ordinary voters. As a result many decisions involve political risks. The county chiefs and city mayors can use the Internet to make available mountains of administrative data. Increased transparency will enable citizen oversight. It may hinder the officals' own operations. But it would be backed by a majority of the public. It would constrain those tempted to abuse their privileged status. In short, an open and transparent system is more secure than a simple wolf pack.
During an economic downturn, the government is the marketplace's biggest customer. Putting tender offers on the Internet is merely one small step. The Internet Age will increase transparency. All manufacturers who make tender offers must make their information available. They must publish the amount of their tender offers. They must publish their contributions to political parties and elected officials. The raw data must be disclosed. This data must be made available to county chiefs and city mayors. It must be cross-checked against the county chiefs' and county councilors' political contributions and other data. Only then can we ensure market order and fair competition.
Local governments are responsible for local construction projects. These pertain to ordinary folk. There is little need for secrecy. Limiting access to this information merely creates a hotbed of corruption. The iron rule for anti-corruption is openness and transparency. Sunshine is the best antidote to corruption. The Internet provides that sunshine. Digital technology provides the brightest source of light. The government must make this data as open and available as possible. Tender offers must be webcast in real time. The names of the bidders must be made public. The winning bidder must be made public. The names of political contributors to county chief and city mayor elections must be made public. Counties chiefs, city mayors, and ordinary citizens must be able go online and view the information. In sum, the greater the visibility, the greater assurance of fairness.