An ePal to go with the Lokpal?

 
Corruption manifests itself in many forms. From its plain-vanilla version of straight-out ‘compensation for execution’ to more diaphanous methods like sponsoring an event, paying for services as a cover or exchanging favors. Today, even anti-corruption movements are tainted by allegations of quid pro quo!
 
In India, there have been various attempts to tackle this issue. Some governments have automated their processes and filing systems so that the opportunities for gaming the system are reduced; others have taken a legislative route, sometimes in addition to the aforementioned e-Governance systems. Unfortunately, the threats have not been transformed into guarantees yet – a guarantee that corruption will be discovered and its participants punished. 
 
To expect corruption to be tackled by ill-equipped and untrained enforcement agencies (often compromised by their political masters’ priorities) is nothing short of naivete. You cannot legislate out corruption… it has to happen at a much deeper, much more fundamental level.

When the disease stems from our DNA, so too must be the cure.
We have often been so focused on big-ticket corruption – the kind with oodles of zeroes – that we have rarely taken a step back to see the picture in its entirety. Dotted around big-ticket corruption, like fleas on a dog, is small-ticket corruption. It is this category, the one where you pay a few rupees to get out of a ticket or to get something done faster (or at all), that the average citizen encounters but never questions.
 
For every Bofors or CWG, there are millions of below-the-table transactions taking place at registrars’ offices, utility boards, recruitment divisions, RTOs and other government offices. The sum total of these little thefts – for they are not taxed, never regularized – might perhaps eclipse some of the UPA government’s ‘proud’ achievements… but for once, they are not to blame.

 

We are. 

The aam aadmi who robs from Peter to pay Paul. We may have our reasons, but every time we excuse ourselves, every time we force Peter to cough up when he shouldn’t have to, we make him a Paul to someone else. And that creates another Peter somewhere else…


Myths about small-ticket corruption:
  • Big-ticket corruption excuses small-ticket corruption because it creates it as a trickle-down effect
  • Proponents of the latter are justified when they point to their masters’ big-ticket deals and ask for these to be prosecuted first.

An effective anti-corruption stance requires a zero-tolerance approach (not a zero-loss one!). It must treat a five-rupee violation as seriously as a five-thousand-crore one.

You cannot be any ‘less’ corrupt or any ‘more’ corrupt – you are either corrupt, or you aren’t

The challenges
  • Investigating the trail of one million-dollar scam is far easier (forensically speaking; the political interference is another issue altogether) than the ten-thousand hundred-dollar deals that happen at government offices every day. 
  • A one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Solutions such as (Jan) Lok Pal are either overwhelmed to the point of impotence against the scale of small-ticket corruption – because it happens in more places than can be tackled effectively without having charges of bias or persecution levelled against it. 

(This is not to say that Lokpals or Jan Lokpals are useless – in the right way, used in conjunction with other anti-corruption measures, these Acts may indeed make a huge difference to crime-fighting)

So what is the solution?
 
 
To tackle the ubiquitous small-ticket corruption, a two-pronged approach is neded. There should be both negative and positive reinforcements.
  • Negative reinforcements, obviously, include legislation and enforcement of tough, speedy justice, demotions, threat of exposure, etc. But in a country where being a ‘rebel’ or ‘very smart’ is sometimes a sought-after label, this might not always work. 
  • Positive reinforcements such as recognition of and rewarding those government employees who are a credit to their job and their department by virtue of their efficiency, integrity and effectiveness. 
But how will we implement this?
 
This sounds, as you’ve probably guessed, easier than it is. How do we do it, you ask, given the lakhs of employees, the multitude of tasks they execute, the unorganized way in which government offices often keep track of work, the biases that creep into any system private or public?
 
Perhaps a solution would be to have an ePal – an online portal where citizens can rate government employees, departments, etc. on how satisfied they are with the efforts and outcome, and if, at all, any baksheesh was sought, provide an easy workflow to report such approaches.
 
Every citizen armed with a mobile phone (smart/dumb – the phone, that is!) and/or an internet connection can sign into the portal, pull up the details of the staff member who was assigned the citizen’s task and rate them on multiple parameters (importantly, on integrity, efficiency and effectiveness); if the staff member is not in the database, there can be a provision for a citizen to add the employee.

Can a solution like ePal make a difference?
How will this help? 
  • Over a period of time, as the volume of feedback grows, it can provide an objective and real-time measure of the quality of (administrative) governance. 
  • Since it would be a public list, people would be less likely to be corrupt as it would eventually be tracked by the system for the world (and their own families) to see… 
  • Additionally, it becomes a valuable resource for a citizen clueless about a particular task – he/she can log into the portal, pull up the task and be informed of the process and the personnel to approach for redressal. 
  • Most importantly, as a third-party-driven and -audited engagement, it can be an objective and acceptable standard for benchmarking performance, as well as be a Key Result Area when it comes to assessing government employees. High-scoring employees can then be incentivised (given that most people who are corrupt are forced to be because of commitments like fees, EMIs, etc., the incentives can take the form of increased benefits, allowances or subsidies)
The path towards such a system is surely not easy – not only can we anticipate opposition from those whose activities will be monitored, but also does the success of this program depend on continuous public participation. It will be the public’s feedback that will keep the scoreboards ticking over, the players competitive and the system on an inertial pull to clean itself up…  
 
There is every risk that such a venture could end up adopted by a few activists and ignored by the rest of the populace, but that seems to be a worthy risk. By giving the opportunity to the public to act against corruption and for clean employees, we lose maybe a bit of time and effort – but the payoffs, if it does work, could be a future generation where a visit to a government office is not something we dread.  

India has spent too much time as a kleptocracy – can we, the aam aadmi, the unwitting kleptocrats, now turn things around? Or will we continue to hold up the bogey of political big-ticket corruption so that we may not see us for what we are?

You tell me…

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