It’s no secret that citizens need information about their government to hold officials accountable. Today’s information technologies empower more of us around the world to do just that. These examples are just a start:
1. Put cameras in the room
The C-SPAN cable television and radio network broadcasts live congressional and other government proceedings. In 2013, 47 million Americans were tuning in weekly. They were more likely to correspond with their officials and contribute to or work for a political campaign.
2. Give whistleblowers a safe space
Where can citizens report government misconduct without fear of retribution? In Liberia, mobile phones and text messages supply an answer. A new anonymous SMS hotline allows Liberians to monitor and report police misconduct. The police pledge to track, investigate and respond to complaints.
In the U.S., whistleblower laws protect employees who alert the public to illegal or improper government activity.
3. Follow the money
The U.N. says $1 trillion is paid in bribes every year. This corruption can reduce a nation’s economy by up to 17 percent! How can people fight back? A smartphone application called Open the Books aims to put “every dime of [U.S.] government spending — on all levels — online, in real time,” including how much officials are being paid. App users soon discovered — and publicized — how the salary of a local Illinois school district treasurer mysteriously jumped from $163,000 to $295,000 in one year. That treasurer is now serving a nine-year jail sentence.
4. Demand access to government documents
Citizens can hold government accountable without smartphones and other new technologies. Sometimes the best technique is simply to make officials disclose what they’ve done. Many countries require periodic disclosure of government documents. The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows nearly anyone — you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen — to petition some 100 government agencies to release printed or electronic records. In a recent year, those agencies received over 700,000 requests for documents.
The U.S. and more than 70 other countries are working to promote transparency and fight corruption through the Open Government Partnership. See if your country is part of that global campaign.