Monthly Archives: August 2012

Do We Need a Wikipal?

Politically speaking, the decision by Anna Hazare to disband Team Anna and take up the fight through electoral politics is both good news and bad. Good because it upholds the supremacy of electoral democracy—which was being pooh poohed by the likes of Arvind Kejriwal just a few months back. But what I feel bad about—and I am not a supporter of M/s Bedi and Kejriwal—is that an experiment to take an alternate route has failed. Yes, despite the power of Facebook and Twitter to support it this time around, as many of us never forgot to add. But as I have pointed out many times, including in this blog (Digital divide is now political…), reach of social media—or for that matter Internet—is too limited to fight a successful battle against the government and the system.

So, do I mean to say that we have little hope—as long as we have a democracy and as long as we, as a people, are not completely honest, we will have to tolerate this large scale, systematized corruption?

Not necessarily. But if we have to really find a solution to the problem of corruption, it has to be taking a different approach that fundamentally changes certain key parameters, not taking the same path again and again.

The big proposed entity called Lokpal—that is thought to be the panacea for all ills by Anna and his supporters—is nothing but yet another costly addition to the already overburdened system. If the Legislature, Judiciary, the Executive and the Press could not do it, by what logic do we expect yet another new body with its base in Delhi to eradicate corruption? The demand has been for more power to it. There is no logic given by anyone how more power itself will translate into more effectiveness in checking corruption. After all, the members would be people from amongst us. Why should one believe that they would be more honest than you and me—and our politicians and bureaucrats?

The problem is we are seeking a solution in the old, centralized model with a set of people having absolute power over everyone. Just that instead of being called MPs or ministers or secretaries or editors, they would be called Lokpals.

What if we take a fundamentally new approach? Instead of trying to check corruption by instilling fear of punishment after the act of corruption is done, what if we can ensure that corruption is minimized by making it more difficult to do it, i.e instilling fear of getting caught while doing it. That should be done by bringing in transparency.

Such transparency is possible only when there is easier access to information by a wider section, ideally members of the general public.

Two fundamental principles are cornerstones of this approach: one, instead of centralized systems, we go for decentralization; and two, instead of giving real power to people, we give it to a computer system.

Decentralization does not necessarily mean chaos. Wikipedia—despite whatever limitations it may have—has shown us how the collective power of people can be credible and dynamic at the same time. But to ensure that we prevent mobocracy and chaos, there has to be defined rules and processes (as in Wikipedia) and massive information infrastructure to store, forward, and process information. That requires a powerful (ideally distributed) computer system.

As everything becomes available to a wide set of people, the system will ensure that few dare to indulge in violating the rules. A person may not fear another person; but everyone fears the public.

We have seen that happening in cricket. The third umpire—though there is a person whose name is associated with it—is actually a computer. The replay is on a huge screen for the world to see. And technology ensures that there is no intended wrong decision. The same principle will work here.

In a technology-enabled system, the information itself will have the power to make everyone exercise restraint. A huge computing plaform—lets say a supercomputer—can, on a continuous basis, monitor for exceptions. There can also be ways and means to lodge anonymous complaints by the whistle blowers. Initially, people may misuse it to trouble opponents, but soon, the system will take care of itself. If the processes and technology are good, a false complaint will result in calling out the bluff. By moving from an investigation mode to a prevention mode, the system itself will become more “less corrupt”. There will be experts, advisors, information analysts—from any walk of life. But the power will not lie with them; it will lie with the computer in particular and the whole system in general. The system would be fault tolerant and designed to learn from experience.

Of course, any such system can be effective only when there is a lot of information generated electronically. That means a lot of government processes need to be automated. Thankfully, that is increasingly happening. That will supplement the reactive mechanism of the Wiki model by a proactive check on processes and exceptions. In such a scenario, RTI would be seamless and would be like a Google search.

Instead of instilling fear of punishment after the corrupt act is done, it would instill fear of exposure while doing corruption. So, not only would one get caught but would get caught before he/she gets any benefit out of that.

Such a system will ensure the following

  • Any exception is caught and reported, almost in real time
  • All information is stored in multiple locations so if something that cannot be brought to public notice in real time because of sensitiveness of the issue, they can be exposed in future by the system. Remember WikiLeaks?
  • Ensure speed and efficiency in addition to transparency

By making all the citizens participate, we would give collective responsibility to everyone while rigorous processes with technology underneath ensuring that there is no chaos because of that. This will still not be able to eliminate corruption but will make it far more difficult to do corruption, thereby significantly reducing it.

What do we call such a system? Did you say Wikipal?

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Filed under Digital Economy, New Governance, Policy & Regulation, Technology & Society