In December 2011, tens of thousands of Slovaks took to the streets to protest the corruption engulfing Slovak politics. Leaked documents showed top politicians dividing kickbacks, lucrative jobs, and spheres of influence with powerful oligarchs.
Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog, ranked Slovakia among the most corrupt countries in the European Union. The protests were the largest outpouring of public anger and disappointment since the 1989 revolution that swept the communists out of power.
Yet, less than a year before the scandal, the Slovak government was already laying the groundwork for some of the most dramatic transparency reforms in the world. All public procurement documentation, judicial verdicts, and—most importantly—contracts, receipts, and orders from all levels of government were made public on the Internet.
A new study by Transparency International (TI) Slovakia shows that these efforts might be bearing fruit. As much as one-tenth of the population has checked at least one contract or receipt online. The central database of contracts gets an average of 54,000 visits per month. The mainstream media produce over 25 percent more stories about government procurement than before. The share of tenders with single bidders dropped from over half to less than one-third.
Even the perception of corruption in Slovakia has decreased—in last year’s TI ranking, Slovakia climbed to 54th place, its best result since 2008.
While a number of countries do actively publish contracts online—including the UK, Colombia, and Georgia—none of them go as far as Slovakia. With some exceptions for personal data and business strategies, full texts of contracts must be revealed, and there is no value minimum to what gets published.
Indeed, almost half of contracts published have only nominal value—they concern amendments, frame agreements, or barter deals. Contracts do not go into force until they are posted on the web. Moreover, receipts and orders also have to be published—not actual copies, but simple lists of what has been ordered or bought from whom and for how much money.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. State-owned companies started complaining that they cannot do business if competitors see all their cards. The state airport in Bratislava, the capital, even claimed that its biggest client, Ryanair, might leave if forced to disclose its pricing agreement.
Over time, as many as 20 exemptions have crept into the transparency law. State companies only have to publish contracts outside their core business. Public broadcasters can avoid publishing artists’ contracts, and the National Highway Authority got rid of the obligation to publicize land-buying contracts.
In addition, a lack of central oversight means some of the publications are incomplete. TI Slovakia estimates that up to 10 percent of contracts have some key information missing, be it price, the name of the contractor, or some substantive appendix. Several contracts were even redacted months after they were published.
Overall, however, transparency reforms have won over even skeptics. Quite a few mayors feared the system would become a “digital bureaucracy” at the start. The largest political opposition party, Smer, which did not vote for the reforms, warned of legal uncertainties.
Yet now, with Smer in power, the party is sounding a different tune. Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák recently said, “It turned out that having contracts online has been meaningful in the fight against the corruption … and we plan to go even further.” Richard Raši, another high-ranking Smer politician and the mayor of Košice, Slovakia’s second-largest city, now says that he does not even remember voting against the reform five years ago, insisting, “It must have been a mistake on my side.”
For more than two decades, newly independent Slovakia struggled to catch up with the Czech Republic. Last year, with impressive economic growth, it finally closed the gap in average income. And now Slovakia is even serving as an example to its former partner in Czechoslovakia, as the Czech parliament begins debating its own law on mandatory publication of contracts online. The law works so well in Slovakia, its proponents in Prague argue, that the Czechs should adopt a similar one—a form of imitation that’s transparently flattering.