There’s been some buzz recently surrounding Global Integrity’s launch of TESTING 1 2 3 – The Global Integrity Innovation Fund as well as the recent opening of the OpenGov Hub, an experiment in co-working space for open government-focused non-governmental organizations working in the Washington, D.C., area. In both cases, we (and other observers) liberally toss around “innovation” as exciting proof positive of what we’re after with these initiatives.
But what exactly do we mean by “innovation” in the government transparency and accountability space? What does it look like in concrete, practical terms? Innovation is without question one of the most overused, overwrought, and over-hyped labels out there. We’d be remiss in not attempting to unpack our vision for what “innovation” looks like in our community of practice.
To illustrate this, let me take two examples of ideas and experiments that I find potentially innovative for government transparency and accountability. These are the kinds of “half-crazy” ideas we are searching for with TESTING 1 2 3. Notably, these ideas draw on techniques and experiences from other fields (medicine, engineering), something I feel is a hallmark of many innovative ideas: leveraging and adapting successes discovered in one field and porting them over to another.
The first is the idea of the power of lists to increase efficiency and reduce discretion (two intellectual foundations of the anti-corruption movement). If you haven’t read The Checklist Manifesto by medical researcher and writer Atul Gawande, stop reading this blog post and pick up a copy. It’s a remarkable journey into the power of simple checklists for revolutionizing fields such as surgery (by vastly reducing the rate of infections in the operating room) and engineering (by facilitating the building of skyscrapers).
Gawande’s core argument, borne out in groundbreaking work he helped pioneer with the World Health Organization around the world, is that by posting and enforcing simple checklists of seemingly “obvious” steps (e.g. that operating room surgeons and nurses should wash their hands and introduce themselves to each other before commencing a procedure), human beings actually perform at much higher levels. This is why veteran airline pilots go through the same preflight safety checklist religiously despite having done it a thousand times before, or why engineers meet ritualistically to review the tiniest progress in building a 50-story skyscraper. The checklist helps to avoid mistakes that inevitably crop up in these massively complex undertakings, and in surgery have helped to reduce post-surgical infection rates by remarkable amounts.
How is this potentially relevant to our work? I’d like to see whether posting checklists in government bureaucracies prone to administrative corruption in some countries – think of the passport agency, or a construction permitting office – can reduce the potential for officials extorting bribes from citizens and businesses.
Imagine a passport office in Corruptville where the average citizen is typically shaken down for a $100 bribe in order to obtain her passport in a reasonable amount of time. Would there be a difference if officials posted the actual process/steps involved in obtaining the passport (the black and white “rules of the game” – first fill out this form with these documents, then submit it to this person, who will have it approved by this supervisor) on a poster on the wall in the office, along with the worst-case estimate of how long she should expect the process to take? Would that increased awareness deter bureaucrats behind the desk from requesting the bribe, or empower the requestor to file a complaint should she be extorted? Maybe. Or maybe not. But I’d like to try it.
A second example also comes from medicine, and from another book I am working through, The Emperor of All Maladies (like the first book, I highly recommend it). The Pulitzer Prize-winning volume is a history of cancer and the medical community’s long battle to unlock cures and treatments for the disease. The thrust of much of the book is that cancer researchers and medical practitioners wasted decades, even generations, by chasing an ethereal silver bullet cure for “cancer” without fully appreciating that different cancers have different etiologies and thus different potential cures and treatments. In other words, there will never be a single cure for cancer because there is no single disease but rather a collection of related by fundamentally different diseases
Sound familiar? The anti-corruption movement, in my view, has been similarly chasing a phantasmal “cure” for our cancer – corruption – and is quite often failing to fully grasp that no single cure exists because the disease itself is not singular. The bribery racket described above in Corruptville is a fundamentally different animal from the influence wielded over politicians by the financial services sector in many countries. The solution to that sort of “state capture” is inevitably going to be different, and potentially radically so, from ways to eliminate bribe extortion at the passport office in Corruptville.
What I’d love to see in the government transparency and accountability movement is an exploration of the ways in which ultimately successful methods of identifying disease-specific cancer treatments might be ported from medicine to anti-corruption. Are there research methods and techniques that might be borrowed and adapted to capitalize on the insights developed by the cancer research community? Perhaps not, but I find that potential truly innovative.
“Innovation,” like any label, is just that: a label. Where it gets interesting is not in coming up with a better definition but putting the hard work into coming up with better solutions. That’s our aim with the Testing 1 2 3 The Global Integrity Innovation Fund and the opening of the OpenGov Hub. Now let’s get to it.
— Nathaniel Heller