If we give digital its correct name, i.e. Surveillance Capitalism, I am convinced that we can create an ethical and corruption-free public sector.
Disclaimer: For the purpose of this article, I discuss digital with the guiding principle that a sharing society is a caring society and as such the growing urgency on the need for extreme data privacy does not form part of the discussion – although an important topic worth a discussion in the future. I further maintain that a just and honest citizenry must be willing to share their private information for the greater good – if such an ideal exist.
Traditionally, it would seem that our public officials and politicians see accountability and transparency as a matter that starts and ends with our vote on Election Day. It does not help either that citizen activism is in short supply these days whilst we enjoy the comforts of capitalism, unless of course we find ourselves on the wrong side of the equation.
In recent time, there seems to be a growing concern for more transparency and accountability of our elected political heads and public administration in general. Although a very simple ask, it appears this is something the public sector is not able to achieve with the right efficiency (or maybe the motivation is not there).
I’ve done a high-level review of ethics and governance matters within cities and have drawn the following observations:
Corruption is a welcomed part of the system.
The motivation and type of corruption differs between senior executive officials on short contracts vs. junior officials hired on permanent basis.
Senior executive officials generally are hired on short-term contracts, linked to respective political party’s term in office. Most go from being poor with no power, to a lot of power in a short space of time with ridiculous executive pay. It appears that this group is generally easily motivated to use their newly found political or administrative power for personal gain (quick riches before they are fired or term ends).
Junior officials on the other hand fill permanent posts and their crime, although seemingly small, over time they build the right intelligence and as such their small crimes become bait for multi-faceted expensive and complex crimes (remember they are the ones with administrative access to ERP systems etc.).
ERP systems and processes are generally weak. If strong, over time the officials (with help from contractors) make them weak to enable corruption to thrive. For example whilst most use SAP with GRC and the likes in place, no one bothers to actively monitor role assignments to ensure security conflicts are red flagged and addressed.
Collusion is a reality.
Intentions may have been positive, however the nature of the relationship between the political office and city administration is generally bad. This is fuelled by enrichment of a few in the expense of citizens through well crafted tactics where the same regulations put in place by entities such as National Treasury to strengthen ethics and governance. These are creatively used to hide or justify serious corruption (corrupt legal practitioners, accountants and consultants help a lot here).
You would ask, how does such happen in an environment where rules of engagement are transparent between the political and administrative office? With allocation of budgets presented and scrutinised publicly?
It is simple, for as long as public officials are accountable to each other and not directly to the citizen (they serve) – the public purse will always be abused, especially when there’s such high motivation (outlined above) from senior stakeholders to enrich themselves as quickly as possible during their term in office.
There has never been a stronger case for digital within public sector to force public officials to account directly to the citizen.
The need and power for direct accountability to the citizen through digital means has been shown to work tremendously in major cities such as New York and Massachusetts. For example, the Open Checkbook public reporting platform for Massachusetts is a basic example (though it covers the easiest use cases) where the city uses digital means to monitor every single spend item within the city’s budget against executed projects. Through data analytics, the city is then able to draw insights on effectiveness of its budget execution and make all of this information publicly available on the web for anyone to look at, indirectly attracting public scrutiny.
I just love their bold tagline ‘MassOpenBooks, your online tool to find out how the Massachusetts State government is spending your tax dollars’
By making the information publicly available, it allows interested parties to know first hand information such as:
Overall budget allocation
Projects prioritised and executed
Which contractors are hired for which projects
Contractors completing work within schedule and budget vs. those delivering late with higher than planned budgets (a default name and shame system)
It all seems simple but availability of this information publicly means we no longer have to rely on fake news or anonymous sources and the recent Zondo Commission and the likes for basic truths. This helps citizens to be more aware on how their city is performing and encourages a better informed citizenry, allowing closer accountability.
Officials don’t have to cook up the numbers anymore as budget execution is transparent to everyone. Importantly, if the data is wrong – everyone gets to see the same wrong picture at the same time as everything is connected to the ERP system with two-factor authentication for each official involved in data capturing.
In an enhanced version of this system other data inputs can be included such as crime data points, IoT related data for infrastructure condition, service management solutions for ease of logging issues such as street lights not working, portholes etc. in a way that transparently logs a ticket and allows for detailed status tracking, with an ability to aggregate the data and run detailed analytics and machine learning algorithms that can find other service problems and automatically resolve or raise related alarms.
Some may think some of this is far-fetched but visit cities such as Singapore and surprise yourself on the power of digital when used for good.
A clear purpose to improve citizen life has made these cities to double down on digital, and you can see how it has paid off even with managing a pandemic such as COVID-19 whilst highly corrupt countries such as South Africa are struggling to account on what happened to the R500b meant to address COVID-19 challenges, or the Gauteng education department that blew away half a billion on PPEs that cannot be found in a single public school (with the minister claiming no knowledge of what happened).
The citizen and private business are also corrupt, but we can re-imagine a new future together…
Picture a city in South Africa that runs a digital rewards platform, giving rewards to both a citizen and/or good corporate citizen (a business) where proper use of city services and great value contribution to the city are demonstrated.
This can be a great use case for a blockchain enabled platform that successfully tracks the digital identity of the city’s citizen or business entity against consumption of city services, corruption, value contribution (e.g. pay bills on time, use of green energy, recycling efforts, support of social justice causes, help to the homeless, etc.).
The blockchain platform can track these positive contributions by a citizen or business in a non-repudiated manner ensuring the information is a single version of the truth, and can be trusted. Top citizens or businesses within a city can then be rated and the information made public and linked to city rewards.
Even better, companies involved in public procurement can be selected (vetted) against their reward score before any shortlisting based on price and delivery capability. This ensures that the city works with ethical and trusted businesses (according to the public rewards platform). I am sure you will agree with me that this is a much superior scheme that existing affirmative action based schemes that have been instrumental in enabling large corruption to thrive. The existing National Treasury’s CSD database is too primitive and not relevant (in current form) for today’s business context as it does not have meaningful information that government departments can use to identify good companies from bad ones, and we can solve this easily with the proposed platform.
This platform can also allow for well off citizens and businesses to distribute the rewards accumulated in their wallet to individuals that may not be well off (for example the homeless), who can then use their wallet in a coupon fashion to consume city services such as transport, buying food etc. The beauty of the platform is that all of this can be tracked and one can be guaranteed that their hard earned rewards are used productively whilst improving their overall social standing within the platform as they do good, which opens them up to even more rewards and benefits.
For a change we can know who is the top citizen in Joburg, through positive contributions and not simply through your net worth.
A simple platform such as this blockchain enabled rewards system enforces the right behaviours in society by leveraging the power of digital transparency. Ultimately, this platforms becomes the global rewards system – bringing the much needed synergies across all rewards platforms such as Discovery Vitality, eBucks, Smart Shopper, etc. The city can dictate for all these different rewards systems to covert into this master rewards platform for greater good, and maximum value.
If done well, such a system can become both a social platform and e-commerce (and payment engine)…think of the scale to which weChat is used in China.
For a city that is motivated for change, digital can be your best partner to bring in efficiencies and improve trust between the political office, administrative office and the citizen – and it all starts with placing accountability where it belongs, to the citizen.
In a transparent digital environment, the question of poor ethics and governance naturally disappears as everyone has access to a single version of the truth as and when action happens.