Guest Post: Promoting Ambient Accountability with Architecture and Design

GAB is delighted to welcome back Dieter Zinnbauer, Programme Manager at Transparency International, who contributes the following guest post:

Corrupt transactions do not merely “take place” – they take place in a place, a specific place at a specific time: at customs authorities and land registrars, at hospital wards, police road-stops, school headmaster offices, or the offices of social benefits agencies. The fact that most form of corruption occur in physical locations may seem both obvious and unimportant, but in fact there may be some promising ways to modify the physical settings for government-citizen interactions that would make various kinds of corruption less likely to occur (or easier to detect and remedy). This possibility builds on the observation that many corrupt transactions are fragile forms of social exchange, often involving power asymmetries, established social roles, norms, and expectations. These social dynamics are critical to enabling the parties to engage in an illegal transaction that could get both of them into a lot of trouble. These complex social dynamics and expectations are affected by the physical environment; modifications to that environment can therefore disrupt or alter the social dynamics of a specific situation—creating feelings of empowerment for potential targets of extortion and feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for those who would propose corrupt exchanges.

We should therefore think about ways to use architecture and design to empower citizens to become more aware of their rights and entitlements, to better understand and assess the services they receive, and to register complaints and seek remedies more effectively. I call this concept “ambient accountability.” I have developed this idea more fully in two recent papers (here and here), but here are some concrete examples of how this sort of intervention might work in other contexts:

In New York City, the advocacy group People’s Justice has put up large (bilingual) graffiti murals in public places that explain in plain language the rights of citizens in police stop-and-search encounters; these murals are placed in neighborhoods where such searches are particularly frequent. In Kenya, prominent messages placed in the passenger cabins of minbuses encouraged passengers to complain about unsafe driving, and these messages significantly reduced accident rates.In the food service industry, open kitchen settings in restaurants put on display hygiene standards and kitchen practices to instill trust; research indicates that open kitchens positively impact the chef’s performance and customer satisfaction. Other interventions make it easier for service recipients to provide critical feedback. A familiar example may be the little colorful push-button boxes at many airports right when you exit the security check, which invite you to provide feedback right after experiencing the service to be rated (with no need to look up a feedback number or figure out some other cumbersome complaints procedure).

Of course, most of these interventions do not target corruption as such (unless corruption is defined very broadly). But the potential applicability of the same basic strategy to combating corruption seems clear. All these situational interventions not only work empower the potentially abused service beneficiary; their presence, and integration into the physical environment where interactions take place, means they are in full sight of the potentially corrupt service provider, who would now start harboring doubts whether someone visibly educated about her rights and equipped with instantaneous, salient feedback tools can still be coaxed into paying a bribe without causing any trouble. And we do have some scattered evidence suggesting the anticorruption benefits of these sorts of ambient accountability. For example, publicly posting details about individual household entitlements to subsidized food in Indonesian villages significantly reduced “leakage” rates (that is, lost, stolen, or diverted food).

Research on the potential anticorruption benefits of these sorts of interventions is still relatively sparse, however. We really do not know which types of interventions work, with what design features and in which contexts. Yet the preliminary evidence, including from other contexts like those discussed above, is encouraging. It certainly is cause for more thinking, research, and policy experimentation regarding the potential anticorruption benefits of ambient accountability.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Promoting Ambient Accountability with Architecture and Design

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post! Your examples remind me of one of the most literal and possibly earliest (?) implementations of ambient accountability– replacing office walls with glass to convey the sense that transparency is a crucial part of an office’s culture.

    Your examples also made me wonder about your thoughts on whether perhaps more traditional notions of ambient accountability (e.g. changes in one’s physical/tangible environment) has morphed in today’s digital era. Do you think digital interventions, for example, like a smartphone application like Uber, “pushing” notifications to users regarding their rights as riders and access to remedies, can also achieve the same results as the more conventional methods? What, if anything, would be lost if such digital innovations accounted for an overwhelming proportion of ambient accountability measures implemented to curb social ills like corruption? Would love to hear your thoughts!

    • Dear Cindy,
      thanks so much for your great comments! I think you are spot on that the future is really the situation- and place-targeted fusion of online-physical information interventions. I guess one thing to keep in mind when thinking about purely digital strategies is that a particularly interesting possible transmission mechanism for spatial information interventions is that they are literally in-the-face of the potential corruptor, an effect that is difficult to achieve via small screen personal technologies. Or more simply: the price of a drug prominently displayed at the doctor’s desk vs. the price of the drug retrieved on a small screen by the patient may have not the same deterring effect for fraudulent overcharging. But the future certainly is the right mix of meat and virtual strategies and I think it is actually the private online rating systems from Yelp to Tripadvisor that show the way ahead by taking their collected user feedback offline again as the stickers on the restaurant door etc. See
      All the best and please do send me any examples of ambient accountability that you come across!

  2. I really love the “ambient accountability” proposal. Many people sense something is wrong but do not necessarily recognize the coercion as “corruption.” Simple signage can offer a vocabulary and an explanation of how to respond (or report). A colleague once described passing through customs in an airport in the Middle East, where the customs officials had posted a handwritten sign stating all visas must be purchased in Euros. Unsuspecting travelers would not realize that the price demanded in Euros did not fit the going exchange rate for the local currency. A fixed, formal sign could have helped prevent this abuse. Instead, travelers depended on the oral representations of the officials that this was standard practice.

    One complication — which you probably consider in your articles in greater detail — is protecting these initiatives themselves from corruption. Effective programs will need to be designed to prevent errant officials from utilizing “ambience” in his or her own favor.

  3. Pingback: Changing physical settings of govt offices might influence corrupt behavior | Anti Corruption Digest

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