How Sierra Leone is using technology to fight graft

Data analyst, Lewelyn O'Connor KEMO CHAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

In a room on the first floor of the Sierra Leone National Lottery Company building, the telephone lines are unusually busy.

A woman attendant, aided by a male colleague, is busy responding to anonymous callers.

This is part of the Pay No Bribe (PNB) campaign, the latest approach by the government in its crusade against bribery, considered the most prevalent form of corruption in the country.

The callers are guided through a set of three questions: Did a government official demand bribe while they sought a service; did they pay the bribe; or did they meet an honest person who demanded no bribe?

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) says various studies had pointed to petty corruption, prevalent in the public sector, as having the most profound effect on the livelihoods of the masses, depriving them of much-needed and sometimes lifesaving services.

The crucial sectors

Six government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), covering the crucial sectors of health, education, security, water and electricity, were being piloted under the PNB, an innovative reporting platform that collects real time data through three sources, the toll-free line [515] being just one.

Citizens can also download an app on a mobile device and report verbally. On downloading the app, an automated voice prompt leads you through the questions.

They can also log on to a dedicated website [www.pnb.gov.sl] to report.

The system is designed to let anyone report with ease and anonymity, say ACC officials, adding that the idea was to have people even report against their own relatives or friends.

Dominant languages

Since it is the ordinary person that is targeted, the project caters for the three dominant languages in the country - Krio, Mende and Temne.

The idea of the PNB was inspired by the 2013 Afrobarometer report which ranked Sierra Leone worst among 34 African countries, with two thirds of those surveyed admitting bribing an official to get public service.

That report rated the police as the most corrupt institution across the entire continent.

Nigeria, Kenya and Sierra Leone were rated the worst for police corruption.

In Sierra Leone, the police have topped almost every national survey on anti-graft since then, including the first ever quarterly report of the PNB, released at the end of February.

Pay a bribe

Out of a total of 7,027 reports recorded, covering October, November and December 2016, 80 per cent, representing 5,602 people, reported paying a bribe. Another 12.5 per cent (885) reported not paying a bribe. Only 7.7 per cent (540) reported meeting an honest official.

Almost half the reports - 48.7 per cent – were made against the police. 23.2 per cent concerned health officials, while 22 per cent concerned the education sector.

Calls concerning electricity and water sector officials were 4.6 per cent and 1.3 per cent, respectively.

There were other interesting statistics from the report. For instance, it was found that men were 10 per cent more likely to pay a bribe than women.

The men were almost six times more likely than women to pay a bribe to the police, whereas women were four times more likely to pay a bribe than men for health services.

In the education sector, girls (47 per cent) reported slightly less bribery than boys (53 per cent). In terms of public utilities, men were more likely to pay a bribe for electricity services and women for water.

A Sierra Leone government service chartered billboard on a street in central Freetown. KEMO CHAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP

PNB is one of seven programmes under the President’s Recovery Priorities (PRP), on improving governance in the public sector arm of the UK-funded post Ebola recovery initiative designed to reposition the country to its pre-Ebola growth trajectory.

PRP is chaired by Presidential Chief of Staff Saidu Conton Sesay, who laments that corruption remained a significant challenge to Sierra Leone’s development.

“It diverts resources that should go into healthcare, education and infrastructure and erodes trust in public institutions,” he says.

Serious efforts to contain graft in Sierra Leone started back in 2000. Several legislative reforms have since been instituted but with little effect on the growing phenomenon, which has also become an obstacle for the country to source funding from a wary donor community.

In 2013, the failure to tackle corruption was one of the factors that cost Sierra Leone $300 million in US funding for development projects as part of the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Remedial actions

The latest Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index shows that Sierra Leone dropped to 123 in 2016 from 119 the previous year.

PNB is not prosecutorial-oriented; it is designed to be used to provide prevention measures, to map out corruption trends and allow the rolling out of targeted interventions and provision of remedial actions.

Therefore, people do not report corrupt individuals; they report a particular department.

The platform basically captures the data and trends on corruption in the public sector, and the data is made public on its website.

ACC also shares detailed reports on monthly trends with MDAs, which use the data to address corruption at source through administrative action or systems and policy reforms.

Trends and patterns

The idea, explains Mr Nabillahi Musa Kamara, the Director of the National Anti Corruption Strategy, is that it shines a spotlight on trends and patterns so that relevant ministries can direct their resources more efficiently towards developing robust responses against institutionalised corruption. He says the intention is to promote change within institutions, rather than targeting or seeking to prosecute individuals who take bribes.

“It captures trends, identifies hot spots and problem areas. It looks at the big picture so that MDAs can work on creating change from within - through training and education, as well as new systems and policies,” says Mr Kamara, who is also the Programme Manager for PNB.

But while the idea is not to prosecute individuals, the Commission says it can use information obtained to launch sting operation on departments, which attract much attention.

Data collected

Mr Lewelyn O’Connor, a computer technician, supervises the call centre. His job includes analysing all data collected from all three reporting sources. He told the Africa Review that they get 100 calls a day on average

The centre is operational between 8am and 5pm, one hour more than the official working period.

Sixty per cent of the reports were received via calls, Mr O’Connor says, noting that the app downloads accounts for 30 per cent, while reporting via the web site was 10 per cent.

While people can call from anywhere in the country, focus was on five districts being piloted in the initiative, including the capital Freetown.

This approach

Analysis of the data collected is done weekly and reports sent to MDAs monthly. MDAs are expected to get back to ACC within seven days with remedial actions.

The Commission says with this approach, it can direct its resources to the right area of intervention.

Already, it has results to show. The police, acting on the monthly reports, say they cracked down on 21 illegal checkpoints between December 23, 2016 and January 12, 2017.

It also instituted a regular meeting of all crime officers and regional police commanders to formulate strategy on tackling bribery within the traffic division, the major point of focus.

Service charters

A number of other reforms have been initiated within the other MDAs covered by the PNB campaign, including the installation of giant billboards serving as service charters for key services provided by public service providers.

At the core of all this is the issue of transparency, says Mr Patrick Sandi, the deputy director of education and outreach at the ACC.

He says they were working on increasing visibility of the service charters across all public institutions so that citizens can identify legitimate charges.

“We will only reduce public sector corruption when we work together – the public, by reporting when they are asked to pay bribes, and the MDAs by identifying and changing the policies and procedures which allows corruption within their ranks to flourish.”

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