The initial success of the Indian web site “I Paid a Bribe” fed hopes social media offered a way to curb petty corruption. Launched in August 2010, the site invited citizens of Bangalore to file an online report if they were asked for a bribe, stating where the demander worked, the amount demanded, and whether they had paid or not. The Bangalorese responded to this invitation with gusto. One told of having to bribe a clerk 12,000 rupees, or about $200, to register a flat. Another angrily recalled having to pay 700 rupees, around $10, to verify an address for a passport application: “When I asked him why should I pay for this, he ridiculed and threatened me that lot of details are missing and I won’t get my passport. The same happened to some of my friends.” Within six months the site had received more than 5,000 reports of bribery and had become a media sensation, featured in stories the New York Times, the BBC, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous Indian papers.
But two years after launch, web site traffic had fallen dramatically and site sponsors had begun questioning its utility. One told authors of a Harvard Business School case study, “Not too many people are now coming on to our site, and whatever limited activity that occurs there is linked with fresh media reports. I think there is a feeling of ennui . . . at the moment.” Transparency International’s Dieter Zinnbauer reports traffic has declined at similar web sites in Pakistan, Columbia, and elsewhere and that some have even folded.
While disappointing, these failures are not surprising given the hurdles such sites face to achieve results.
The greatest challenge is persuading authorities to do something when large number of people report that employees in a particular agency are demanding bribes. The theory behind sites like “I Paid a Bribe” is that once authorities know how much corruption there is in an agency, and know that citizens know they know, they will be compelled to act. As TI’s Zinnbauer explains, the assumption is that the power of visibility and public shaming together with the strength produced by the large number of victimized citizens will force action.
Preliminary results from “I Paid a Bribe” suggested this assumption was valid. In response to a deluge of complaints about bribe demands to register property, the Department of Stamps and Registration introduced changes to the registration process. Likewise, after site founders presented the Bangalore Transportation Department with data showing how many citizens had had to bribe to obtain a drivers’ license, procedures for obtaining a license were reengineered. But these two cases appear to be the only instances where information collected on the site prompted reform. No others are listed on the web site nor are there any media accounts of additional ones.
The two reforms were realized soon after the site was created, when the traffic volume and media attention were both at their height; they also coincided with mass demonstrations across India in favor of a crackdown on corruption. So what the “I Paid a Bribe” experience shows is that it takes an enormous amount of publicity to generate the pressure needed to force authorities to act. Even in a place like Bangalore where a vocal middle class, a lively media, and competitive elections would seem to make public officials particularly prone to citizen pressure. If it takes this much to produce reform in Bangalore, the chances that similar efforts will produce results in less hospitable settings are surely slight.
The lack of sustained results may explain why traffic to the site is down and in particular why fewer complaints are being posted. Research on whistleblowing in the United States shows that the most frequently given reason for not reporting wrongdoing is “I didn’t think anything could or would be done to correct the activity.” Would-be posters on “I Paid a Bribe” may reach a similar conclusion. Why take the time and effort to complain if nothing will happen? If this is so, such sites may be subject to a downward spiral of diminishing expectations. The less reform web site postings prompt, the less willing citizens will be to post complaints. The fewer complaints they post, the less pressure on the authorities to introduce anticorruption reforms.
Perhaps expectations for sites like “I Paid a Bribe” are too high. In countries with a large, active citizenry, an opposition ready to pounce on incumbents’ shortcomings, a 24/7 media in need of fresh stories, and corruption in public service a deviation from the norm rather than the norm, some combination of pride, concern about reputation, and fear of electoral retribution may be enough to prompt action when corruption is exposed. But these conditions hold in far too few states today.
“I Paid a Bribe” continues to offer Indians fed up with the open-hand of public servants a place to register their disgust, to recount how they defeated a demand for a bribe, and advice on how to avoid a demand in the first place. Such a place may help to build an anticorruption community willing and able to apply the kind of public and political pressure required to combat corruption. That would be more than sufficient to justify the effort.