For all their seediness, bribes are often just simple transactions. Someone wants something they’re not entitled to, so they give an official something that he isn’t entitled to. It’s an exchange of value for an illicit purpose. Of course, there are far more complicated schemes, but the great majority of ordinary bribes and shakedowns unfold along these lines.
As governments experiment with removing the personal element and providing more visibility into transactions, they’re finding—at least anecdotally—that the pace of bribes slows.
E-procurement replaces paper-based procurement processes with an electronic cycle, encompassing everything from planning through contract management. This reduces administration costs and increases efficiency. It ensures better access to information and greater visibility for all interested parties, from bidders to government watchdogs. E-procurement is more inclusive, as companies in more remote areas can compete on a fair footing with those in population centers. They may have greater shipping costs, but they won’t be required to invest in regular face-to-face meetings to woo decision makers. The metrics for the success of the contract can also be built into the tool: automatically collecting information about price, delivery, speed, and rejection rates for shoddy products. Vendors can, over time, establish an auditable online reputation for quality. At the same time, the funneling of contracts to substandard or overprices vendors would be easily spotted in an analysis of the data. The OECD has a number of online resources to encourage the adoption of e-procurement systems. Ukraine has launched one such system, “ProZorro,” which allows all offers to be viewed by any member of the public. The government anticipates a savings of approximately US$186 million per year.
E-taxation helps address the problem of individual fraud, but it can also reduce corporate shakedowns. It’s not unusual for companies to face extortionate demands by tax collectors threatening to inflate the company’s taxes if they’re not paid off or, conversely, offering to reduce the tax bill if they are. Automated processes can reduce the need for any personal interaction with tax officials, and thus the opportunity for such demands. At the same time, if an individual or company is selected for audit–-which reintroduces the element of individual discretion–-the rationale for that selection will be visible to those reviewing the online filings. Singapore’s e-taxation system, now in its 25th year, takes this one step further by assigning to different teams the separate tasks of processing returns, processing payments and auditing, making collusion among government employees more difficult.
E-customs may hold the greatest promise for companies subjected to extortion in challenging markets, but this has arguably been the least successful of the electronic initiatives. E-procurement and e-taxation can compel people to work through the preferred platform. But in their experiments with e-customs platforms, countries are finding that companies and government officials can simply step around them, both figuratively and often quite literally. In 2004, when Afghanistan launched its Emergency Customs Modernization and Trade Facilitation Project–-the Automated System for Customs Data or ASYCUDA–-they reported an initial increase in efficiency and transparency with respect to manifests and customs declarations. Increasingly, though, it seems that those seeking to circumvent the system are able to avoid ASYCUDA altogether. On the other hand, the government of Dubai appears to have had considerably more success with its E-Clearance program.
E-judiciary is both simple and effective. There are certain flashpoints at which courts are particularly susceptible to corruption. For example, judges in one Mediterranean country were found to rifle through new files at the docketing stage to identify those that seemed the most lucrative, either because of the nature of the dispute or because they already knew or had been approached by one of the parties. But an electronic platform can assign cases to judges randomly, or based on urgency. Once a case is under way, corrupt judges can introduce delay to extract bribes, but if the electronic platform automatically enters deadlines, this becomes untenable. In addition, when case information is online, unusual trends associated with one case or one judge are easier to detect. Having such information available online also prevents court clerks and staff from demanding grease payments in exchange for checking on the status of a case. The Philippines launched an e-Court program in 2013. There are currently over 200 e-Courts across the country, and the Chief Justice has indicated that there will be almost 300 by the end of 2017.
E-policing may sound a little far-fetched, and I was surprised to hear this anecdote when I was in Eastern Europe a few months ago. A woman was describing with delight the recent introduction of traffic cameras in the capital. Given how different this was from the vitriol most people reserve for traffic cameras, I asked about the source of her enthusiasm. She explained that the local police are highly corrupt and traffic stops are an opportunity to shake down citizens in relative privacy. If the driver was in fact speeding or if they ran a light, they may be offered an opportunity to pay the “fine” on the spot. In cash. Even if there was no infraction, the officer might well trump something up. With the traffic cameras, the woman explained that she had recently received notice of a fine in the mail, together with the photographic evidence. If she wanted to pay it, she could mail in the correct fee. If she wanted to dispute it, she could do so at the relevant office–-well-lit and well-staffed–-and not on the side of an isolated road with an armed and opportunistic police officer standing over her.