Expecting the best of local officials

India’s use of “social audits” to help citizens track government programs helps prevent corruption.

Police in New Delhi, India, detain anti-corruption activists in 2019.

When global corruption watchdogs assess a country’s levels of official integrity, one important factor they measure is perception. That is because public expectations of good or bad reflect how societies define moral behavior. “High levels of corruption perception could have more devastating effects than corruption itself,” a study in Uruguay concluded, leading to a “culture of distrust” and a breakdown in “the relationships among individuals, institutions, and states.”

One approach to addressing high negative perceptions of corruption is social audits, which empower citizens to hold officials accountable by reporting abuses of public trust like embezzlement or demands for bribes. The idea is also evolving as a means for consumers, investors, and employees to gauge the ethics and financial integrity of corporations as well as their commitments to environmental goals such as carbon reduction.

Social audits have gained traction among a wide range of countries, from those with high degrees of public trust like Norway to those with high perceptions of corruption like Peru. But in countries where corruption is rife, it can take years to develop the tools and public confidence to make them effective. India’s gradual progress in establishing social audits shows why.

The country has grappled with persistently high perceptions of corruption for decades. The latest survey by Transparency International found that 89% of people think corruption in government is “a big problem.” In 2005 India passed a law establishing a comprehensive, nationwide provision for social audits. Earlier this month the government announced that it would begin requiring social audits of government-owned enterprises and private companies to promote social responsibility norms. It has instructed India’s Securities and Exchange Board and Institute of Chartered Accountants to establish new standards for social audits.

The 2005 law enables citizens to report if they have been improperly denied public services or experienced attempts by public officials or businesses to coerce bribes. That is supposed to trigger public hearings where both parties meet, often without an immediate threat of reprisal, to discuss and resolve their disputes. Social audits can cover government programs such as education, child nutrition and juvenile justice.

But efforts over the past 17 years to make social audits a standard practice have run into stiff resistance, particularly from so-called “frontline bureaucrats”—local village leaders and elected elites—who are most directly responsible for rendering public services. As the Global Anticorruption Blog pointed out this week, it required orders from the Supreme Court in 2018 to get individual states to begin to carry out national mandates under the 2005 law. Only 16 of 28 states have social audit administrations, and just two have independent enforcement agencies.

Even so, the idea is gaining momentum. In March the Ministry of Rural Development signaled that as of April 1, funding allocated to states for a plan that guarantees 100 days of paid, unskilled work for every rural family would be contingent on whether states had appointed social audit ombudsmen in each district.

“The social audits and the appointment of ombudsmen are good steps for better and transparent implementation of the [rural jobs] scheme,” labor rights activist Nikhil Dey told the Telegraph of India. “The government should ensure the states follow these measures.”

In countries like India where perceptions of corruption are rife, progress toward transparency through tools like social audits is about more than rooting out official dishonesty. The more important effect of such efforts is the building of an expectation of good.

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