Information Technologies against Public-Sector Corruption in the Czech Republic: Assessment and Recommendations
Supported by the Open society institute – with the contribution of the International policy fellowships of OSI-Budapest
The objective of the paper is to explore the possibilities for the employment of information and communication technologies for fighting public-sector corruption and the concrete impediments to a more extensive technology employment for generating wider social support for the anticorruption objectives and for assisting robust communication channels among the involved actors. The paper explores the present situation in two policy fields in the Czech Republic. First, the paper focuses on the developments in the field of information policy. Second, the paper evaluates the state of corruption and the fight against it. While in the first case the paper concentrates on the state strategies for the employment of information and communication technologies, in the second case the state strategy as well as the strategies of relevant non-governmental organizations are analyzed.
public-sector corruption; information and communication technologies; anticorruption strategy; Czech Republic
At the level of public debate the problem of corruption is loaded with several myths. One of the most prominent beliefs says that it is possible to find a simple recipe that, if successfully applied, would help us to get rid of corrupt activities. This argument is sometimes used in a different fashion, namely it is claimed that there is a way to introduce in society a nearly total transparency that would put a stop to all illegitimate transactions. As the information and communication technologies (ICTs) have generated a revolution in thinking about the future of governance of public matters, their use has lately come to be perceived as one of those recipes. The unpredictably rapid development of the Internet and other technological devices is expected not only to reorganize public administration, but also to make both the public-sector officials and the executives more accountable to the citizens. From this vantage point, the soft power of electronic media should make the notoriously self-interested bureaucrats to finally pursue the public interest proper. When applied in the field of public-sector corruption such visions sometimes result in the so-called ‘Panoptic vision’. This vision implies that due to the management control made possible by the development of ICTs the ultimate victory over public-sector corruption is a matter of several forthcoming years. However, although the new technological applications have a genuine transformative potential in the field of curbing corruption, their use must be accompanied by additional measures if it is to result in a tangible inhibition of corrupt activities (see Heeks 1998).
This paper takes off with a short overview of the development of information policy in the Czech Republic (CR) and focuses on the potential that the ICTs hold for curbing public-sector corruption. This part of the paper is followed by a section that describes the recent developments related to the reorganization of the civil service in the CR and additional measures that can be used for minimizing corruption opportunities in the public sector. The next section offers an assessment of the present situation in the CR in the area of anticorruption policy. The paper concludes by an analysis of the activities of relevant non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Every part of the paper concludes with a set of recommendations for the respective area.
Public-Service Corruption and Information Technologies
The principal enemy of corruption is transparency. Although the word itself has recently been turned into a buzzword often emptied of real meaning, an anticorruption strategy that does not enhance the transparency of public administration is doomed to fail. One of the recently most debated ways to reduce corruption opportunities in public administration is the so-called e-government. The ICTs are expected to increase the transparency of administrative processes and decision-making. It is widely believed that the employment of the Internet and other information devices will ultimately replace the often arbitrary and nontransparent decisions of civil servants.
The problematic of e-government became an issue also in the CR. There is a perceived need to utilize the potential of the ICTs for making the administrative processes more effective and transparent. The beginning of the coordination of the state information policy dates back to 1998. In this year the Governmental Council for State Information Policy was established as an interdepartmental body for the coordination of the activities in the area of information policy. In 1999 the government adopted a basic political document, the State Information Policy, which was in 2000 followed by the Action Plan for the Completion of the State Information Policy. The stated priorities of the state information policy are (1) information and digital literacy; (2) IT-based democracy; (3) development of public administration information systems; (4) communications infrastructure; (5) trustworthiness and security of information systems and personal data protection; (6) e-commerce; (7) transparent economic environment and (8) information society: stable and safe (Státní informační politika).
In the 2001 state budget 865 million Czech Crowns (CZK) were devoted to the projects specified in the Action Plan. In 2002 the CR joined the eEurope+ initiative which is a version of the well known EU eEurope initiative modified for the candidate countries. The aim of the initiative is to ensure greater competitiveness of the candidate countries through the use of ICTs. In October 2000 the Office for Public Information Systems (OPIS) was established. The OPIS is an office of the central public administration and is responsible for the development and integration of public administration information systems. Presently, the OPIS is being transformed into a new institution – a ministry for information technologies. In addition to these developments, new legal norms that were meant to facilitate the progress of information society and e-government in the CR were gradually adopted, the most important among those the Law on Public Information Systems and the Law on Electronic Signature. Therefore, the European Commission, in its 2001 Regular Report on the Czech Republic’s Progress towards Accession, stated that “(g)ood progress has been made in the area of the information society” (Regular Report 2001: 48).
However, there are many problems related to the introduction of e-government in the CR:
1) There are not enough resources available from public sources.
2) The available limited sources are not spent in an effective way. This has to do with the lack of coordination of information systems’ building that ultimately leads to the ineffective use of limited resources. According to the former minister without a portfolio, who was responsible for the employment of information technologies in public administration, only 20 per cent of the resources channeled to the building and upgrading of information systems in the public sector were spent in a coordinated way. Instead of coordination, the building of information systems in the CR is marked by “sectoralism”, i.e. by an approach driven by the particularistic interests of respective ministries and other central offices.
3) The legal system is not being adjusted so that the necessary requirements for the better employment of the ICTs in public administration are met. Moreover, there is no cooperation between different actors in the legislative process. It is very often the case that a new law is being prepared without taking into account the need to incorporate provisions that would make the norm compatible with the stated goal of information society building.
4) There are political and psychological barriers to the wider use of ICTs within the civil service. Civil servants defend their narrowly defined sectoral interests and their behavior is shaped by a rigid mindset inherited from the past. In addition, there does not seem to be sufficient political will in the highest echelons of power to promote novel ways of public sector organization.
5) Related to the previous problems, there is a lack of a competent coordinating agency such as a Ministry of Information or a similar type of the central state office. According to the available evidence, the situation has so far been marked by a diffusion of authority over the introduction of e-government in the CR. The competencies have been dispersed among the minister without a portfolio, the OPIS and some other ministries. As a result, there was no institution able to make particular offices to cooperate, and to impose a single standard on them. As one observer said, it was enough to have a look at the web presentations of different ministries in order to understand that standardization was needed (Jirkovský 2002).
Although the employment of ICTs should ultimately contribute to a more decentralized organization of public administration, its introduction needs an agency to coordinate the activities of all involved actors. This is proven by international experience. If such an agency is lacking there is no institutional representation of the interest in the use of ICTs in public administration. Therefore, the experts active in the field underscore that the problem of the employment of ICTs in the CR is primarily political. It is necessary to make a political decision whether and to what extent we need the ICT applications and whether and to what extent there are citizens ready to use them. As it seems that there are still not many such citizens, it is necessary to conceive programs aimed at increasing computer literacy, which are indeed included in the governmental Action Plan.
When compared to other countries, the Czech citizens have not fared very well as regards computerized communication with public offices. According to the results of a research conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres in 2001, the use of on-line communication with public administration within the last 12 months was reported by 17 per cent of the population of the CR. In the international comparison made by the same consortium this is a result that ensures an average ranking for the CR. However, 28 per cent of the population intends to use on-line communication in the future (Taylor Nelson Sofres 2001). Therefore, although the present situation is not ideal there will be a growing segment of the population willing to communicate through the Internet and it is to a large extent up to the state if there will be conditions conducive to a wider use of the Internet.
All the problems notwithstanding, the situation is gradually improving. For example, the web presentations of all major state offices as well as municipalities in the CR have improved tremendously and today some of the web sites provide the citizen with rich and well-structured information regarding the particular sector of public administration. Ministries established electronic entry points at their web pages and on the basis of the Law on Free Access to Information (adopted in 1999) extended the scope of publicly provided information. There are several other promising developments in this field such as an effort to establish a public administration portal (Portál veřejné správy) which is particularly important from the point of view of a greater transparency of public procurement. Since 2000 all calls for public tenders must be posted there and it is even possible to find the winners of public tenders there.
On the other hand, despite the adoption of the Law on Electronic Signature, due to the lack of implementation the electronic signature could not be used in the official communication between citizens and public offices. In addition, some provisions of the law have recently been disputed and, according to some accounts, the law allows for several contradictory interpretations. The author of the law did not accept the criticisms and set about to defend it against the critiques (see a theme section “Zákon o elektronickém podpisu”, Inside 2002). However, as a result of these uncertainties and the uncoordinated nature of the law’s implementation, the electronic signature is underused in the CR. According to the experts, this has to do with the general climate in the civil service that is generally e-government-unfriendly.
Provided that there are some other important IT-based projects being prepared, ensuring the wider support of civil servants is critical for these projects’ success. For example, on the basis of the Law on Public Information Systems a single design of the IT-based public administration registers is being prepared. It will consist of the register of inhabitants; the register of economic units; and the register of territorial identification and immobilities. Especially in the case of the register of economic units the support of the civil service will be needed in order to change the present situation that is characterized not only by a lack of a central registry but also by extensive bribery. Although direct evidence is lacking, it seems that the present system opened a wide room for ‘intermediary agents’ - some attorneys’ offices and individual attorneys - to monopolize, in cooperation with court officials, the points of registration – the commercial courts - and ‘cash’ access to them.
This everyday-level corruption could be powerfully mitigated by the employment of ICTs that ensure that every application sent to an office will be transparently dealt with. For instance, the OPEN System developed for the city administration of Seoul offers an example of the successful use of ICTs in the anticorruption struggle (see OPEN System). Due to the OPEN System the status of every application submitted to the city administration of Seoul can be checked via the Internet. In this respect, citizens can acquire real time information on their applications and can find out who is currently reviewing them, their status, estimated date of approval, or reasons for which applications were returned. However, as the case of the anticorruption strategy used in Seoul well illustrates, the application of the ICTs is not a universal panacea for the problem of corruption. The OPEN system was introduced as one of the elements of a complex anticorruption strategy based on preventive and punitive measures, transparency of administration and public private partnership.
For the successful employment of ICTs in the anticorruption effort in the CR, the following measures are crucial:
1) A well-empowered coordinating institution has to be designed with the task to implement the goals of the state information policy. As the new ministry for information technologies is being established, it is particularly important to stress this task now.
2) The employment of ICTs must be incorporated into the governmental strategy for curbing corruption. On the basis of international experience a pilot IT-based project within the range of a city should be prepared and realized (e.g. the OPEN System).
3) The employment of ICTs must be considered in relation to other anticorruption measures. International experience demonstrates that in order to be effective every successful anticorruption strategy must include a set of complex measures in several areas. There is no single recipe for fighting corruption. In order to fully utilize the potential hold by the ICTs for curbing public-sector corruption the employment of ICTs must be considered in the broader context of interrelated measures in the organization of the civil service.
Public-Service Corruption and the Civil Service Reform
One of the most debated problems of the civil service in the CR throughout the 1990s was the lack of a law regulating the civil service. The government brought the draft of the Law on Civil Service in the Chamber of Deputies only in December 2000. However, as the European Commission stated in its 2001 Regular Report on the Czech Republic’s Progress towards Accession, a consensus on the civil service reform was not sufficient in the Czech Parliament. According to the Commission, “in view of the key importance of this Act, this is regrettable…The adoption of the Civil Service Act remains a precondition for establishing an independent, professional, stable and accountable public administration. The previous Regular Report identified the absence of this Act as impacting negatively on the effectiveness of the public administration, in particular by encouraging short-term political appointments and by preventing the establishment of attractive career prospects” (Regular Report 2001: 17).
Ultimately, the Law on Civil Service was adopted by the Chamber of Deputies in March 2002. The second chamber of the Parliament – the Senate - followed suit a month later. The text of the new law was made public in the official edition of the Law Codex on May 28, 2002. As the law introduces a new system of civil service, there is a considerable time left for the preparation of its coming to force in the beginning of 2004. According to the information provided by the Ministry of Interior, the goal of the new law was to improve the integrity of civil servants in the CR and introduce a system of stable career prospects and long-term expectations for civil servants, accompanied by legal limits put on servants’ involvement in the private sector activities and a set of sanctions for breeching the law. In addition, according to the original proposal of the law the salaries of civil servants were to increase by 40 per cent. According to the Ministry of Interior, the expected increase on the basis of the final version of the law will be approximately 30 per cent.
The first step towards the introduction of a stable and professional civil service has been made in the CR. Although there are many critics of the new Law on Civil Service, it holds a promise for the future in the form of predictable long-term career prospects and relatively well-paid jobs for civil servants. In addition, in order to ensure the integrity of civil servants there are plans to tighten the monitoring and detection mechanisms aimed at discovering corruption in the civil service. The Ministry of Interior was assigned by the government to consider the employment of the controversial mechanism of “direct provocation”, i.e. the deliberate offer of a bribe to a civil servant in order to test her integrity. Although there are many legal problems related to this tool, its employment as a part of prosecution should be recommended on the basis of international experience.
Strengthened control mechanisms and strict penalty provisions should become important components of any successful anticorruption strategy. However, equal emphasis should be put on prevention, i.e. minimization of corruption opportunities. There are several possible elements of a strategy for successful prevention of administrative corruption. The very fact that civil servants are aware of the control mechanisms serves as a powerful tool of the anticorruption effort. It can also be facilitated by the introduction of an ethical code of the civil servant. However, such an ethical code must be accompanied by a proper enforcement mechanism. If there is no such mechanism, the ethical code turns into a rhetoric device without any real-world relevance. In addition, according to Langseth, Stapenhurst and Pope, establishing an ethical code depends on several additional conditions (Langseth et al. 2000: 63):
· the ethical environment must be accepted by a broad segment of the public sector;
· deviations must be dealt with equally and consistently across the public sector;
· the ethical environment requires political commitment and leadership as well as broad support by civil society.
In the CR a Code of Ethics for Employees of the State Administration was approved by the government in March 2001. However, the conditions for its successful employment have not been fulfilled, because the Code was approved by a government that itself engaged in several suspicious projects and activities (see also the next section). This has to do with the general lack of political will and credible commitment of political leaders to fight corruption in the CR.
International experience, however, makes it clear that public-sector corruption cannot be successfully fought against if there is no will to fight high-level political corruption, too. Nobody can expect that a successful anticorruption program will be implemented by politicians whose integrity is compromised. Therefore, a vital component of any successful strategy for curbing public-sector corruption is a strategy for fighting political corruption.
For the further advancement of the fight against public-sector corruption in the CR, the following measures are crucial:
1) Credible political leadership must be ensured. There is a need for a serious commitment on the side of elected politicians to fight corruption.
2) An anticorruption strategy to fight political corruption should be devised and put into practice.
Corruption and Anticorruption in the CR since 1998
Corruption became a major political issue in the CR in 1997, when the country’s political system was heavily influenced by a series of party finance scandals. Due to the financial scandals in the then ruling Civic Democratic Party the second government of V. Klaus collapsed at the end of 1997 and a new transitory government under the leadership of the then governor of the Czech National Bank Tošovský was appointed. Unlike the previous coalition governments, which in the first half of the 1990s put the issue of corruption into oblivion, the transitory Tošovský government marked corruption in its list of priorities.
It is necessary to mention that there were some efforts to put corruption to the agenda already in 1997; however, subsequent events related to the big financial scandals in the then ruling political parties erased these moderate attempts from the public memory. Indeed, according to a public opinion survey conducted by GfK in 1999, it was the past communist governments together with Klaus’ governments (1992-1997) that mostly contributed to the spread of corruption in the country (GfK 1999). A perceived shift in the overall political climate was introduced, according to the same survey, by the transitory government of Tošovský (in power in the first half of 1998). This anticorruption shift was rhetorically reinforced by the social democrats, who came to power after the 1998 parliamentary elections, and who put fighting corruption on top of their political agenda.
The government launched the anticorruption campaign „Clean Hands“ intended to redress the cases of privatization mismanagement. However, despite several „success stories“ the government was unable to mobilize wider social support for its anticorruption objectives and in 2000 the campaign faded away without a major social impact. It was the opposition politicians in cooperation with civil society groups such as Transparency International, who, by lobbying for the adoption of the Law on Free Access to Information (1999), contributed to the increasing accountability of public-sector officials.
On February 17, 1999 the government accepted a Governmental Program for Curbing Corruption in the CR and set the direction of the anticorruption struggle in the CR. The priority goal of the Program was fighting public-sector corruption; in particular, corruption of public officials, judges, public prosecutors, policemen, customs officers and employees of financial authorities was regarded as the most dangerous form of corruption. On February 14, 2001 the government accepted the Report on Corruption and on the Fulfillment of the Governmental Program for Curbing Corruption in the CR. This Report was followed by another one that was accepted by the government on April 17, 2002.
Despite its stated goal to fight corruption the government did not manage to demonstrate its resolution to carry out the adopted anticorruption strategy. Credible commitment on the side of the executive has been perceptibly missing since the anticorruption strategy was approved. In addition, the government itself became compromised due to the way it was dealing with public tenders. Between 2000 and 2002 the government acquired an “absolute exemption” from the provisions of the Law on Public Contracts that regulates public procurement in the CR. The exemption allowed the government to avoid organizing public tenders. As a result, there were numerous cases when the contract was assigned to a supposedly carefully selected firm, thus leaving the impression of corruption and manipulation.
The government’s attitude to public tenders was the climax of the generally disastrous situation in the area of public procurement in the CR. There are several problems related to the Law on Public Contracts: (1) it is not a stable legal norm since it has already been amended seven times; (2) it allows for contradictory interpretations; (3) it allows for too many exemptions, especially at the highest levels of public administration; (4) it also applies to some private subjects. As a result, the law did not fulfill one of its main missions, namely the minimization of corruption opportunities. In addition, the implementation and enforcement of the law has remained a far cry from the ideal. According to some experts, the main culprit is the Office for the Protection of Economic Competition that is unable to monitor for mismanaged cases and to work on the effective prevention and a sound methodology of public procurement.
From the point of view of the employment of ICTs for curbing public-sector corruption, the governmental strategy is characterized by an almost total neglect of ICTs. Thus far, a web presentation focused on corruption has been developed on the web site of the Ministry of Interior and consists of basic governmental documents, the Code of Ethic and information on anticorruption strategies abroad. There is also an e-mail contact for victims of corruption. This is, however, a rather poor record.
For the successful employment of the ICTs in the anticorruption effort in the CR, the following measures are crucial:
1) The employment of the ICTs must be incorporated into the strategy for fighting corruption.
2) On the basis of international experience a pilot IT-based project focused on mitigation of administrative corruption within the range of a city should be prepared and realized. Such a project could be a starting point for a wider employment of ICTs in the public administration process in the future.
The Role of Civil Society in the Anticorruption Effort
One of the most emphasized dimensions of the anticorruption struggle is the strengthening of civil society participation. Civil society groups are expected to contribute to (1) the raising of public awareness about corruption; (2) the promotion of action plans to fight corruption; and (3) the monitoring of government’s and public administration’s actions and decisions (Anticorruption in Transition 2000: 45). In addition, civil society groups often gather and publicize information that is utilizable by state agencies and in some cases, civil society groups themselves engage in lobbying deputies and officials in order to influence the policy-making process so that new anticorruption measures are introduced and enforced. Some researchers in the field of curbing corruption believe that increased civil society participation will ultimately lead to the reinvigoration of the fight against corruption. In other words, civil society organizations are believed to be able to break the cycle of corrupted exchanges that would otherwise never come to an end. As the most typical cases of corruption do not produce ‘victims’ but establish links of mutual complicity through which resources are channeled and distributed (e.g. a firm wins a public tender and those who decided on its victory subsequently receive a kickback), it is not unproblematic to imagine how such a system could be made more transparent. As a response to that problem, public control exercised by interested civil society organizations is believed to produce sufficient pressure to bring this type of exchange to a halt.
Two groups of civil society organizations are distinguished: (1) groups that take a collaborative stance to some state offices and try to cooperate with the responsive parts of the public administration in order to formulate and promote action plans to fight corruption; (2) groups that engage in more confrontational strategies and, instead for cooperation, opt for a direct challenge to those whom they regard as corrupted (see, for example, Frič 2002). Both types of civil society organizations are operating in the CR. The most visible organization of the first type is the Czech chapter of Transparency International which has established links to the political system of the country and is often listed by state officials as the single most important civil society organization focusing on curbing corruption. The Prague-based association Regeneration represents the second type here. One of the activities of the association is the direct monitoring of conflict-of-interest cases involving deputies of Prague municipal assemblies and employees of Prague municipal offices.
The above-developed distinction between the two types of NGOs notwithstanding, the activities of NGOs in the field of anticorruption struggle in the CR are marked by an excessive lack of cooperation and information exchange. Although it cannot be expected that those NGOs that opt for more confrontational strategies will be willing to cooperate with those organizations that try to cooperate with state agencies, the present situation significantly undermines the potential inherent in a more robust information exchange between interested actors. There is no need to establish strong cooperative ties. It would not be possible and, moreover, it could erase the diversity of approaches to corruption. Different organizations have developed their own organizational autonomy and they want to preserve it in the future. However, even under these conditions the combination and exchange of diverse expertise could facilitate the efforts of involved organizations. The executed research made it clear that such information exchange would be needed, as NGOs often work on similar issues, although they are not aware of it.
A common information server should be established. The establishment of the server focused on the fight against corruption would not only facilitate information exchange among the NGOs active in this field, thus promoting their genuine goals, but would also improve communication between the NGO sector and the media and between the NGO sector and the state. The field research executed for this paper revealed that the quality of communication between NGOs and journalists is not always the best. Sometimes, the activists are ‘cited’ in a newspaper without being actually contacted by it. Sometimes, the issue of corruption is overtaken by totally inexperienced journalists whose media products remain a far cry from the standards of the profession. The establishment of a server, which would include regularly updated information for journalists, would significantly improve the quality of public debate on the issue of corruption in the CR.
The server would also contribute to the de-monopolization of the anticorruption effort by providing high quality information on corruption and the activities of the NGOs fighting it to the interested state actors. Thus far, only Transparency International managed to find a way to the Ministry of Interior that is responsible for the formulation of the state anticorruption strategy. However, it would be exaggerated to talk about a coordinated cooperation between Transparency International and the ministry. Their cooperation remains sketchy, unsystematic and superficial. Therefore, the establishment and the maintenance of the server could improve this situation and provide the officials with a wider range of relevant information. All in all, the establishment of the server would enable various actors to obtain information about the activities of other actors. This is a strategy that fully utilizes the potential of ICTs and aims at a decentralized model of corruption control.
If an anticorruption strategy is to be viable, it must be designed as a multi-pronged endeavor that includes a set of complex measures in different spheres of society and state organization. Thus, the employment of ICTs in public administration will not bring any tangible results in the anticorruption effort unless it is accompanied by other measures aimed at minimizing corruption opportunities in the public sector. For example, even if there is a considerable effort to computerize public administration processes in order to make them more transparent and citizen-friendly, this effort will encounter a major resistance from the side of civil servants if they are underpaid, lacking career prospects and unable or unwilling to acquire necessary skills. After all, why should they cooperate if their only advantage - unchecked discretion - is going to be minimized by enabling the interested publics and auditing institutions to monitor their behavior? Probably, in order to make them more cooperative a stable system of civil service must be put in place together with requirements for civil servants’ integrity and tough control mechanisms, including clearly defined penalty provisions.
Unless the media and civil society organizations are mobilized, any anticorruption effort will turn into complacency and will ultimately lose its drive. Most probably, the ‘fight against corruption’ talk will surface only as rhetoric when there is nothing substantial to talk about. If state bureaucrats monopolize the issue there is a danger that the ‘anticorruption label’ would be used to cover corrupt practices. Therefore, the activities of NGOs and media independent of the state are vital in keeping the engine of the anticorruption struggle going. While NGOs and the media cannot start a serious anticorruption program, it is these two types of agents that can, with the help of awareness raising campaigns and direct political action, facilitate the campaign. In this respect, the ICTs can enhance the involvement of diverse actors representing various social interests so as to (1) de-monopolize the anticorruption effort; and (2) to enable various actors to obtain information about the activities of other actors. This holds the potential of increasing the transparency of the whole system without concentrating the power of control in the hands of a single institutional actor such as the state. This strategy fully utilizes the potential of the ICTs. It aims at a decentralized model of corruption control and therefore, preempts the mismanagement of information technology by asymmetrically empowered actors such as the state bureaucrats. However, the increased involvement of non-state actors in the anticorruption struggle cannot be understood as the exclusive responsibility of the state. On the basis of the research executed thus far this paper claims that a large part of responsibility resides on the side of non-state actors themselves.
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