Nick Brown, head of Global Distribution for Mobimedia International, contributes the following Guest Post.
Persuading corruption victims to complain remains one of the great challenges to combating corruption. Policymakers can’t prioritize prevention efforts or know where to deploy enforcement resources if they don’t know who is demanding bribes where and from whom. But getting citizens to blow the whistle is no mean feat. Citizens must be convinced it is worth the effort, that something will happen if they do speak up. Citizens must also be assured they will be safe if they do, that the corrupters will not harm them or their loved ones, financially or physically.
With its “Phones Against Corruption” initiative, the Government of Papua New Guinea has hit upon a way that citizens can easily and safely report corruption complaints, and since its launch in 2014, with technical support from Mobimedia International and financial backing from UNDP and Australia, it has taken off. Critical to its success is that it makes no technological or financial demands on PNG’s limited capacity. It requires no more technological sophistication from citizens than the ability to send a text message, a form of communication widely used throughout the country. How does it work?
Step 1: Send a Text Message to 1XXXX with any word.
Step 2: A welcome message appears, asking you to choose your preferred language (English or Pidgin, the language most citizens speak).
Step 3: The system asks you WHERE the alleged case of corruption occurred.
Step 4: The system asks you WHEN the alleged case of corruption occurred.
Step 5: The system asks you if the case involves financial resources or not.
Step 6: The system asks you WHAT is the case (brief description).
Step 7: The system thanks you for your contribution and provides a brief feedback of the cases so far.
The penetration of mobile phones in PNG stands at around 50% up from a rate of 1.6% ten years ago. Mobile broadband availability, however, remains low, and internet access is often unavailable. Hence, while mobile coverage in 2017 is extensive, most rural areas still have only 2G services. SMS technology is thus key. It is fast and has the broadest reach. It’s also familiar, simple to use, and available on any type of handset. All messages are encrypted to protect the sender’s identity (indeed the Phones Against Corruption program is fiercely protective of its users’ anonymity), and is free to the end-user (bulk SMS are purchased by the program from the operators in advance and zero-rated on a unique short-code).
Once Phones Against Corruption was up and running, Mobimedia used its knowledge of PNG and developing markets to rapidly increase the participation levels. Mobimedia knew from other SMS-based news services it ran in the country that these services had exceptional uptake from people in regional areas where access to information via traditional media channels was poor. Getting daily news from SMS alerts was immensely popular, especially in these rural areas where information is king. So, how was this lesson applied to Phones Against Corruption? By adding in an additional SMS at the end of the sequence with feedback on cases reported and a headline. It reassured the whistle-blowers that their efforts were valuable and their heroics were making a difference in the fight against corruption.
Success to date
The program has seen two public officials arrested for mismanagement of funds of more than 2 million USD. Five more are awaiting court decisions, and approximately another 250 cases are being investigated. In detail:
- Over 32,229 SMS were received from 4,993 different users up to end February 2017
- Average number of cases reported is 1.4 per person, illustrating active & repeat engagement in the program
- 6% of all cases have been reported from the provinces and districts, outside of the capital, Port Moresby
The program has been extended across other departments. Six new Departments were added in 2015 as a first step to incorporate all civil servants. Part of this was in response to the fact many complaints reference other areas outside of the Department of Finance, such is the confidence of those reporting the misuse of public funds. There is a clear desire to see the scope of the program broadened.
Indeed, the success of Phones Against Corruption in PNG has prompted its Pacific Island neighbors to consider introducing their own programs. The Solomon Islands is currently implementing a National Anti-Corruption Strategy, a key feature of which is their own version of Phones Against Corruption that is expected to be launched in the coming months.