“Can a reality TV show discourage corruption?” This was the recent attention-grabbing headline of an article in The Economist about Integrity Idol, the brainchild of the NGO Accountability Labs. It was started in Nepal in 2014, and has since spread to Pakistan, Mali, Liberia, Nigeria, and South Africa.
The format of the show is simple. Citizens are asked to nominate civil servants whom they believe display the highest standards of honesty and integrity. These nominations are then reviewed by a panel of judges comprising local and international experts, who select five finalists. Videos are then produced, each around 2-5 minutes long, containing excerpts from an interview with the finalists and their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates, along with glimpses into their work lives. (See here and here for examples). These videos are disseminated among the citizenry via traditional and non-traditional media. Citizens vote for their favorite, and the “Integrity Idol” is crowned.
This isn’t the first time a non-traditional cultural medium has been used to spread an anticorruption message. Other approaches, including museums, TV dramas, music, and poetry have been discussed on this blog previously (see here, here, here and here). Thanks to Integrity Idol, reality TV can be added to the list. That might seem a bit surprising. Reality TV has a (deserved) reputation for depicting an over-dramatized, intentionally provocative, and often manipulated caricature of real life. One hopes that no one would cite Real Housewives of New York as a reliable source for understanding the lives of real housewives in New York! Integrity Idol is different: it is an intentional effort to draw attention to real stories of real people, and often the unaltered stories of these people are compelling in and of themselves. The vision of Accountability Labs and its founding director, Blair Glencorse, is to “support change-makers to develop and implement positive ideas for integrity in their communities, unleashing positive social and economic change.”
Gyan Mani Nepal is the poster child for the type of public official that Integrity Idol seeks to find. In Panchtar, a district in eastern Nepal, schools were paralyzed by teacher absenteeism. Even when teachers did turn up, most of the time the teachers were drunk. The situation was so dire that schools were only open for 79 out of a possible 220 school days. The situation seemed hopeless until Gyan Mani Nepal was appointed as the District Education Officer in 2013. At the root of this broken system of education, he found great deficiencies in integrity and transparency. Teachers got away with the high rates of absenteeism and unethical behavior by bribing principals. Rather than benefit from this dysfunctionality, Gyan Mani Nepal resolved to correct these deficiencies. He prepared daily timesheets through which students monitored the attendance of teachers. He made the government budget transparent. He personally visited almost every school in the district, often in disguise. He put his phone number on the blackboard of each class and gave his number to parents and members of school committees instructing them to call him if there were any irregularities. This brought about remarkable change. Teachers who used to get drunk resigned, and teacher attendance is now over 90%. More schools have been built. The pass rate in the district rose from 14% to over 60%. Subsequently, Gyan Mani Nepal was nominated and crowned as the first Integrity Idol of Nepal in 2014.
Integrity Idol is counter-cultural and challenges the dominant narrative that “all civil servants are corrupt,” which often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. By drawing public attention to civil servants who resist this narrative, and celebrating such resistance, civil servants and citizens alike can be inspired and emboldened to act with integrity. Anticorruption efforts are often associated with “naming and shaming” of corrupt officials, in the hopes that the resulting public outrage will result in accountability. Glencorse believes that Integrity Idol re-imagines this discourse. Instead of “naming and shaming bad guys,” we are exhorted to “name and fame the good guys.” Moreover, most of the nominees are not upper-class aristocrats but ordinary people who face the same challenges as other citizens—which makes them easier to identify with, and also subverts the idea that corruption is the natural or inevitable response of regular people working within a certain environment. Indeed, by portraying its subjects as role models, Integrity Idol has helped to catalyze virtuous cycles: Gyan Mani Nepal’s efforts in Panchtar were replicated in other school districts. The colleagues of Drissa Goita, a nominee in Mali, stated that after his nomination, individuals in the agency began to emulate Goita’s example of punctuality and reliability. Another nominee from Mali, the primary school teacher Seydou Djourthe, was welcomed home to his rural village with a grand celebration. All of this shapes perceptions about corruption at the grassroots in a manner that no anticorruption campaign which resorts only to punitive measures could achieve.
Integrity Idol also galvanizes civic engagement surrounding issues of integrity and honesty. The initial process of going out into the community and requesting people to nominate civil servants is done by youth volunteers. By involving young people in the process, Accountability Labs is furthering its vision of “building a new generation” of active citizens and leaders around the world. Glencorse believes that if youth can be helped to build integrity before they get “sucked into corrupt systems that exist,” a radical change can be made to the system. Moreover, the success of reality TV is predicated on the active participation of people, a fact that Integrity Idol has successfully exploited. Citizens engage with the process in many ways: they provide nominations and then vote from among the top five nominees. And, perhaps surprisingly to some skeptics, the numbers indicate that a large amount of people participate. For example, Liberians submitted 4,689 nominations in 2017, more than three times the number in 2015, and the campaign reached over 4 million people. Integrity Idol also serves as a rallying point around which citizens can engage with issues of corruption, stimulating public conversations both about the individual nominees, and about the importance of integrity and honesty within communities.
Integrity Idol is still in its formative stages, and there are certainly elements that require further thought. For example, research has revealed that in Mali, superiors worry that high-performing subordinates will replace them, and one soldier selected as a finalist was transferred to a more difficult post following his nomination. The good news, however, is that further research is being done. Integrity Idol has got media attention from The Guardian, Reuters, The Economist, and The Huffington Post. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s GOV/LAB is supporting research which seeks to better understand the reasons why Integrity Idol finalists are selected – and how their colleagues respond to that nomination. Reality TV may appear to be cosmetic, and a show about integrity may seem rather banal and uninteresting. However, preliminary evidence from countries show that citizens are engaged and involved, and that Integrity Idol can be a promising addition as a creative approach to the anticorruption ecosystem.