Putting Transparency into Practice in Slovakia: What We Can Learn

In this interview, Eleanor Kelly speaks to Gabriel Šípoš from Transparency International Slovakia on the growing demand for transparency in Slovakia.  Šípoš discusses tips on gaining the most from transparency projects, how a good data chart can travel far and why it’s a great time to be a transparency activist.

Why is building transparency so important for open societies?

It starts from a well-known observation that people behave better when they know others are watching them—or someone could potentially see them. Another experience tells us that people usually take better care of their own money and interests compared to that of others. Transparency involves both of these approaches, visibility and ownership.  That is why pushing for political transparency makes a huge difference: It makes politicians more accountable and presses them to align their interests with those of the public.

One of Slovakia's biggest procurement scandals in recent years concerned a €120 million consulting contract that was announced on an internal notice board at the Ministry of Construction.  Unsurprisingly, it attracted exactly one bid from a company run by the minister's political friends. The public learned about it a year and a half later in a newspaper. To avoid such cases, two years later, Slovakia adopted a law making almost all public contracts valid on the condition that they are published online for anyone to see. With another local NGO, Fair Play Alliance, we later created a web application called Open Contracts which collects contracts from various institutions and puts them in one place, making it possible to search them thoroughly and evaluate them for potential pitfalls.

What is the greatest challenge in achieving transparency?

The first challenge is to persuade political elites that transparency works and is in their interest.  Even on the topic of anti-corruption, it is much easier to win elections on promises to raise jail times or confiscate property from the corrupt as opposed to promises to be more open and transparent. Slovakia has only succeeded in moving convincingly towards a transparency agenda in the last two to three years. In 2011 you could hear the word "transparent" or "transparency" in the sessions of the Slovak parliament more than ever before.

How will this transparency make a difference to peoples’ lives?

That is the second big challenge. When public institutions started putting their contracts online, their officials often complained that it increased their workload unnecessarily as no one was actually engaging with the content.  Firstly, we pointed out a number of scandals that had emerged when somebody (an activist, a whistleblower, a competing business) alerted media, based on the now public information, to suspicious contracts. They ranged from highly paid advisory positions going to friends to extravagant spending on music stars by debt-laden municipalities. Secondly, we conducted an opinion poll which showed that almost one in eleven people, or over 400 thousand Slovakians, actually did look online at public records within a year of the law's existence. Over a hundred thousand checked more than five contracts or invoices published.

For transparency to work, you need in fact only a few "power-users" to go over public records and keep an eye on public officials. But Slovakia's examples show that there is currently a significant popular demand to see how public money is being spent.

What advice have you got for people working elsewhere in the world on issues of transparency and accountability?

This is a great time to be a transparency activist. First of all, over half of the world's countries have freedom of information laws on their books, allowing citizens to check on what their governments are up to. Secondly, never in history has it been easier to collect and share information than it is today. From internet to mobile phones and tablets, millions of people have the capacity to witness, record and share the activities of public officials at any moment.

The challenge is to find the most useful data, to be able to analyze the information collected, to see trends, to provide context. One of the most influential data projects in Slovakia is Open Public Procurement which we created by visualizing comprehensive yet poorly searchable official data on government contracting. With the help of this tool we were able to tell that newly introduced electronic auctions did indeed raise the competitiveness and lowered the prices in government tenders. The former ruling party which introduced e-auctions used our data in its re-election campaign since there were no other analyses available.

The advice then is to think hard about which areas would gain most from transparency and what kind of data would best highlight problems or track changes in policy. Think about how difficult it is to update data, as information ages quickly (for instance, our procurement site is updated daily as it automatically downloads new official data every night). Also, you need to make sure you have a strategy for building an audience for the data. Is it media, researchers or wider public?  Government spending, parliamentary voting records, environmental data, school and healthcare performance are some of the best areas for transparency web projects in most countries.

You use different visual methods to convey the data you collect, why is this?  Has any method proved more successful than another? 

As important as the anticorruption activities are for us, they are still only one of the issues the world needs to deal with. Writing dozens of pages is useful for a few people, but the majority of people will engage better with interactive, visually attractive work. While we carry out one to two 80 page anti-corruption studies for individual municipalities, we thought we needed to efficiently share evaluation and best practices around the country as well. Two years ago we started conducting transparency rankings of Slovakia's top 100 cities, followed by a regional ranking in 2011 and by a ranking of state-owned enterprises (to be launched July 10). We found out that media loved our work, a reaction that convinced many mayors to respond to our findings by launching their own efforts to improve.

This June we pulled together commercial register data on how frequently state-owned companies' managers get replaced. You hear about politically-induced hiring now and then in the media but nobody took the time to show its extent. With two simple charts we showed that in election years up to 80% of management positions get changed. No wonder state companies often provide poor services and make substantial losses.

When you gather data, think about how to provide them for reuse to other researchers, or the public. If a project website is outside your capacities, you should be able to make one or two memorable charts from any policy research. They are a great way to communicate with media and politicians but also with picture-happy Facebook users. With good visualization your research will travel faster and make a bigger impact.

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