Internet, Information and Transparency

On Bersih and how the Internet allows transparency of data – but not always. A version of this was first published in theSun on 9th September 2011.

Internet, Information and Transparency

It took the government this long to figure out that people were genuinely concerned about the need for electoral reform in Malaysia – thanks mainly to Bersih 2.0. The Prime Minister first announced the formation of a Parliamentary Select Committee to deal with electoral reform issues, and the Election Commission (EC) actually issued a statement in response to Bersih’s demands.

Just this week, the commission also announced that Malaysians can now download the voter registration form on its website, with accompanying instructions on what to do. Previously, assistant registrars have often faced shortages of voter registration forms, since only a specific form was accepted, and not just any photocopied version. To think that the EC could have solved this problem a long time ago by placing it online just makes one wonder why this could not have been done earlier.

Online is the way to go 

I had the privilege of judging the semi-finals of the Malaysian Public Policy Competition 2011 held at UCSI University last weekend. It is the first of its kind in Malaysia, organised jointly by the International Council of Malaysian Scholars and Associates and UCSI University, where Malaysians of both local and foreign universities competed to propose the best solution to a public policy problem.

Presentations were outstanding, where teams targeted government agencies in need of an overhaul on governance, transparency and accountability, such as the Police (on bribery), Judiciary (on the perception of biased proceedings), Road Transport Department (on the issuing of driving licences), Public Service Department (on the awarding of scholarships), amongst others. A common theme emerging from these young teams’ solutions was the need to go online.

Proposals ranged from having an open source bribery self-reporting system online, to making available live video streaming of high-profile court cases on the web (as put forth by the winning team from UiTM), to ensuring social media tools would be used to engage the public and disseminate information. Impressive and innovative indeed, ideas of which one should hope to see emerge from within the ranks of actual policymakers.

But is online information enough?

It is common for politicians to wax lyrical about the need for transparency and accountability, but we all know the devil is in the detail. Under the Government Transformation Programme, one of its initiatives under corruption is to disclose details of government procurement contracts. A quick check on the site does show tender advertisements and the final awarded tender of all ministries. It provides the final agreed price but does not give breakdowns for projects with multiple vendors (“Pakej” A, B and C are lumped together). These outcomes should be disaggregated for greater transparency.

The same thing goes for details of the annual budget. Although the estimated government expenditure document is available online, the problem lies within the document itself. Where, for example, “contingent liabilities” or the risk (current and expected) undertaken by government is general and vague without detailed descriptions. Information not only has to be publicly available, it also has to be sufficiently detailed for researchers to make sense of it.

Data must also be presented fairly well, such that it is accessible and easily understandable. A note to add that the government websites today could do with a design overhaul. Ploughing through the barrage of information can be a chore (some still have tacky and distracting Flash).

These efforts should be lauded as administrative improvements to the system. The more information is publicly available, the better. Data, reports, audio and video recordings, live reporting of real-time problems (police bribery, uncollected rubbish, pot-holes in roads, evidence of corruption) should go online. Even without a Freedom of Information Act, the principle of maximum disclosure can be adhered to, breaking the culture of shadowy secrecy.

But this does not ultimately solve the problem of the reality of shady dealings. No amount of published information online will tell you about surreptitious meetings and negotiations that take place before any tender is even advertised. Nor will it report the eventual escalation and inflation of project costs; just one example is the construction of the new Palace, which ballooned up from an original estimated cost of RM400 million to more than RM800 million (Bernama, 15 June 2010). There is no official site that would provide you with details of the original and eventual project cost, based on present navigation of the available government websites.

Information is the most powerful tool available to the public to keep their leaders in check. And using the Internet is ideal – all departments at all levels of government should actively pursue this. Granted, not everything can be captured, but something is better than nothing. Perhaps there will be a way to tabulate and quantify cronyism, patronage and bribery in the future, which would also then be available online.

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