Guest Post: Using Open Data To Combat Corruption—Moving Beyond the Hype

Robert Palmer, the Director of Partnerships and Communication at the Open Data Charter, contributes today’s guest post:

In order to tackle corruption effectively, one first needs to understand the networks that link government officials, businesses, and professional intermediaries, and then work to either dismantle these networks or at least ensure that these webs of connections are not exploited to enrich individuals and undermine good government. Fortunately, these clandestine networks often leave traces in government-held databases, such as company registers, land title deeds, asset disclosures, and other official records. That’s where open data can be helpful. When the government provides easily accessible public information, it makes it easier for government officials, journalists, and citizens to follow financial flows, understand who’s providing government services, and to spot suspect behavior. And that’s why there has been so much enthusiasm about the open data in the anticorruption community. In 2015, for example, the G20 anticorruption working group announced a common approach saying that “Open Data can help prevent, detect, investigate and reduce corruption.”

Yet what’s happening on the ground isn’t living up to this hype. Part of the reason is that, as the Web Foundation and Transparency International found in a recent study of five G20 countries, many countries have made only limited progress toward meeting international commitments on open data. But even where open data is available, relatively few organizations are actually using open data to expose and combat corruption. There are, of course, exceptions, including Global Witness, the data journalists at Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting project, and accountability groups such as BudgIT. Yet the potential for open data to help fight corruption remains largely unrealized.

To help address this shortcoming, the Open Data Charter has spent the last year pulling together a guide for how to use open data to combat corruption. The guide lists 30 types of datasets that could help expose and combat corruption if they are released in the right way, as well as key data standards to ensure consistency and quality between different countries. Of course, the underlying assumptions here are that the types of data listed in the guide can be collected and released by governments in the ways the guide advises, and that there are anticorruption actors who can process this data in ways that are helpful in exposing or preventing corruption. In order to probe these assumptions, the Open Data Charter has teamed up with the Government of Mexico to “road-test” the guide. This will include working out which of the 30 datasets in our guide the government already publishes, which further ones can be released, and how to engage potential users. We’re interested in understanding how if data is released in the right way, users such as journalists, law enforcement, and civil society can process the data and then use it to have an impact on corruption.

Our approach to this piece of work is guided by a real desire to learn what works: what’s helpful to the government and what’s helpful to external stakeholders who want to tackle corruption. We hope to be able to report on our initial findings over August. If you’re interested in learning more, please get in touch with me: robert [at] opendatacharter.org. In the spirit of transparency and collaboration, the guide itself is open to comment here.

Why the Repeal of the U.S. Publish-What-You-Pay Rule Is a Major Setback for Combating Corruption in the Extractive Sector

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

Last Friday, following the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate voted to repeal a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulation that required oil, gas, and minerals companies to make public (on interactive websites) their payments to foreign governments, including taxes, royalties, and “other” payments. The rule was mandated by Section 1504 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, but had only been finalized last year. President Trump’s expected signature of the congressional resolution repealing the rule will represent a major blow to anticorruption efforts, and a demonstration of just how little corruption matters to his administration and to Congressional Republicans.

The extractive industry had lobbied against this rule, arguing that having to report such payments is costly to firms and puts them at an international disadvantage. Some commentators have supported their efforts, arguing, for example, that the Section 1504 rules are unnecessary because the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) already prohibits firms under SEC jurisdiction—including extractive industry firms—from paying bribes abroad. This argument misses the mark: The extractive sector poses especially acute and distinctive corruption risks, which the FCPA alone is unlikely to remedy if not accompanied by greater transparency. Continue reading

Guest Post: Living in a Kleptocracy–What to Expect Under President Trump

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

The news regarding President Donald Trump appointments and nominations, and the increase in foreign governments’ business at Trump properties, has caused considerable concern regarding possible conflicts of interest, nepotism, insider trading, and other types of grand corruption. Many are worried about what this means—if President Trump’s tendencies toward crony capitalism, or quasi-kleptocracy, are as serious as his critics fear, what can we expect will happen over the next four or eight years?

While grand corruption among the political elite may be new for US citizens, this challenge is all too familiar in many other parts of the world. As a long-time resident of Mexico and corruption scholar, I have some insight regarding life in a relatively corrupt environment, which might be relevant to what the US is about to face: Continue reading

The Walmart FCPA Investigation Revisited (Again): Some Musings and Speculations on the Most Recent Reports

Earlier this month, there was yet another intriguing story about new developments in the US government’s investigation into possible Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations by the Walmart’s foreign operations. The Walmart case is probably the most high-profile (and controversial) FCPA case of the last decade, and the reports suggest that it may finally be lurching toward a conclusion, though the recent story raises as many questions than it answers.

Before proceeding to the most recent developments, here’s a quick, and admittedly oversimplified, recap: In 2005, Walmart received a report from a disgruntled former employee that its Mexican subsidiary had engaged in an extensive bribery scheme to pay off government officials to speed the opening of new stores. After internal investigation, however, Walmart’s executives decided in 2006 not to take meaningful action or disclose the apparent FCPA violations to the US government. In 2011, Walmart’s new general counsel initiated a review of Walmart’s anticorruption compliance worldwide; this audit revealed evidence of significant problems in several countries, including Mexico, China, Brazil, and India. Around the same time, Walmart learned that reporters from the New York Times were conducting an extensive investigation into bribery allegations involving Walmart’s Mexico operations. In attempt to get out in front of the story, in December 2011 Walmart disclosed to the DOJ and SEC potential FCPA problems in its Mexican subsidiary, but indicated that the problems were limited to a handful of discrete cases. In April and December 2012, the New York Times published two lengthy articles (here and here) detailing extensive bribery by Walmart’s Mexican subsidiary, orchestrated by the subsidiary’s CEO and general counsel—allegations that went far beyond the isolated incidents Walmart had disclosed the previous year. Since then, the DOJ and SEC investigation into Walmart’s alleged FCPA violations—not only in Mexico, but in other foreign subsidiaries as well—has been ongoing.

There have been quite a few twists and turns in the story. Perhaps the most dramatic was the Wall Street Journal’s surprising report, from almost exactly one year ago. The highlights from that report included the claims (from “people familiar with the probe”) that (1)the investigation was nearly complete (and, by implication, the case would be resolved soon); (2) the US government’s investigation had found “few signs of major misconduct in Mexico”; and (3) although the investigation had uncovered evidence of “widespread but relatively small payments” in India, the Walmart case turned out to be “a much smaller case than investigators first expected” that “wouldn’t be likely to result in any sizeable penalty.”

The first of those three claims has been refuted by the passage of time—it’s more than a year after the WSJ story, and the case has still not been resolved. The latter two claims are flatly contradicted by the more recent report published by Bloomberg (also based on anonymous “people familiar with the matter”). According to the Bloomberg report: Continue reading

A Global Stocktaking on This First International Right to Know Day

GAB is pleased to welcome this guest post by the Centre for Law and Democracy:

Today marks the first of what will be an annual recognition and celebration of citizens’ right to access information held by their governments.  Making September 28 International Day for Universal Access to Information will, as the UNESCO resolution establishing it explains, help make governments and citizens alike aware that an “open and transparent government is a fundamental component of a democratic and developed state,” that all natural and legal persons have a “right to seek, access and receive information from public bodies and private bodies performing a public function,” and that it is “the duty of the state to prove such information.”

For the past five years the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe have been tracking nations’ efforts in fulfilling this duty, and we are pleased to note that substantial progress has been made.  There are now 112 countries with some form of right to information or freedom of information legislation on the books with six nations enacting a new law this year alone.  Not all RTI laws meet the minimum criteria for granting citizens the right to information, and even those laws that do are not always enforced effectively.  To keep watch over developments, our two organizations annually produce an RTI Rating reporting legal changes and assessing their compliance with international norms.  This year’s report has a number of surprising findings.    Continue reading

A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America

OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.

If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.

But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.

I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 2

This post is the second half of my attempt to summarize the commitments (or lack thereof) in the country statements of the 41 countries that attended last week’s London Anticorruption Summit, in four areas highlighted by the Summit’s final Communique:

  1. Increasing access to information on the true beneficial owners of companies, and possibly other legal entities, perhaps through central registers;
  2. Increasing transparency in public procurement;
  3. Strengthening the independence and capacity of national audit institutions, and publicizing audit results (and, more generally, increasing fiscal transparency in other ways); and
  4. Encouraging whistleblowers, strengthening their protection from various forms or retaliation, and developing systems to ensure that law enforcement takes prompt action in response to whistleblower complaints.

These are not the only subjects covered by the Communique and discussed in the country statements. (Other topics include improving asset recovery mechanisms, facilitating more international cooperation and information sharing, joining new initiatives to fight corruption in sports, improving transparency in the extractive sector through initiatives like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, additional measures to fight tax evasion, and several others.) I chose these four partly because they seemed to me of particular importance, and partly because the Communique’s discussion of these four areas seemed particularly focused on prompting substantive legal changes, rather than general improvements in existing mechanisms.

Plenty of others have already provided useful comprehensive assessments of what the country commitments did and did not achieve. My hope is that presenting the results of the rather tedious exercise of going through each country statement one by one for the language on these four issues, and presenting the results in summary form, will be helpful to others out there who want to try to get a sense of how the individual country commitments do or don’t match up against the recommendations in the Communique. My last post covered Afghanistan–Malta; today’s post covers the remaining country statements, Mexico–United States: Continue reading