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Can e-government combat corruption? Experience of Poland and Estonia

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E-government is considered to be an effective tool preventing corruption by reducing the interaction between public officials and citizens. At the same time e-government does not necessarily lead to transparency and may often generate fraud in public administration and elections by giving uncontrolled powers to IT specialists.

Despite the fact that Poland and Estonia are different in terms of territory size and population they belong to the group of countries of the post-communist space and post-soviet space and shared a similar path of development after the end of the Cold War. However, Estonia has been more successful in implementing e-government and thus combating corruption. According to 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Poland was ranked 35th by the level of corruption while Estonia was 26th leading Poland in a number of corruption indicators.

Majority of researches on corruption and the role of Information and communication technologies in its reduction stress on five main factors which emerge due to the development of ICTs in a country.

The first factor is related to the disappearance of a so-called ‘middle man’ when e-government is introduced. Middle-man in this case is a civil servant who loses his powers in providing public services to citizens and is substituted by public e-services. The second factor is the flexibility of e-government, its usability, ease of use, service delivery, speed of use (Dostal,2002). The third factor envisages the increase of transparency of government on all levels after the launch of e-government tools. Transparency gives a chance to wider public to engage in control and monitoring of government. The fourth factor is tightly connected to the previous one and presumes the emerge of accountability of civil servants who are now able to be controlled by citizens. The fifth factor which results from two previous ones lies in reducing the gap between citizens and government which leads to increasing of trust between them that also has a positive effect on corruption fighting.

Even though there are many factors causing corruption in this essay only the factors related to government efficiency will be analyzed. Similarly, only public sector corruption will be measured when looking at the development of e-government in both countries. Thus, the aim of the research is not to prove a direct causal link between the variables which is impossible because of the existence of other factors which are not researched in this essay but to find out if the variables are correlated and if e-government has had a positive effect on reducing corruption in both countries.

It is important to mention that all the abovementioned factors can exist on a different level of development depending on how well the e-government tools are functioning as well how many people have access to internet in order to use them.

Flexibility

It has been proved that there is a positive impact of e-government on flexibility, quickness and responsiveness of government (Lee & Kim, 2007). Flexibility of government can be defined as ability to deliver services in a fast and efficient manner as well as readiness to accept changes and innovative approaches (Dostal,2002). Studies which focus on relation between flexibility of government and corruption often go along with accountability of public servants and institutions. For the purpose of this essay I will divide flexibility and accountability factors which though are tightly related may exist separately and have different level of impact on corruption in a country. Governments which are flexible, responsive and innovative are more prone to resist traditional corruption behavior and schemes (World Bank, 2007). Flexibility factor is also very much related to the concept of good governance which was recently introduced to public policy and administration scholarship. Flexibility is considered to be one of the key elements of good governance which is able to reduce corruption (IFAD, 2005) by establishing fast, efficient and innovative tools and laws to provide services to people which would not leave space for traditional corrupt criminal activities.

Accountability

Accountability is defined as ‘the “service guarantee” of a government; the extent to which its actions are accounted for and corrected if not carried out correctly in the first instance’ (DiRenzio, 2007:52).

If there is a better access to the information and it’s more available and transparent, it will lead to a greater accountability. Basically, e-government pushes public servants to report and explain their actions since every citizen at any time may easily access a web-page of its interest and the time needed for a citizen to analyze it and submit a request to a respected politician or public servant is much lower. Accountability thus prevents corruption on its initial level by controlling and monitoring opportunities provided to citizens. However, in order to ensure that accountability is provided country`s legal system should be amended respectively. Requests submitted by citizens online regarding the activities of a public servant should be treated with to same respect as the printed versions.

Dissapearance of a middle-man

Corruption often occurs when there are face-to-face contacts between public servants and citizens.[5] In order to facilitate some kind of bureaucratic procedure which is provided by a state organ a public servant can come up with ways on how to abuse his powers in order to obtain private gains. Such kind of behavior is explained by a negative side of a human nature which is pushing people for enrichment in illegal ways. Automation of public services eliminate the existence of a middle-man and thus reduce the opportunities for public servants to engage in corruption. However, it is worth mentioning that human factor related to middle man behavior cannot be excluded as such after introducing e-government. Even though the number of people operating public services is significantly reduced, civil servants are substituted by ‘IT specialists’ who are working to ensure that e-government tools are functioning efficiently. Even though the number of possible corruption acts is reduced due to the reduction of public servants, IT specialists may act as hackers in order to gain access to public resources and the scale to which they can involve in corruption has not been yet researched.

Transparency

Transparency is understood as ‘shedding light on shady deals, weak enforcement of rules and other illicit practices that undermine good governments, ethical businesses and society at large’ (Bhatnagar, 2003:15). The casual relation between transparency and corruption level has been proved by an empirical cross-country research conducted by C. Lindsted and D.Naurin. Moreover, studies involving the relation between e-government and corruption usually focus on a specific role of transparency in this regard. Thus, ‘e-government can have various impacts on the levels of corruption, through greater transparency. By making rules simpler and more transparent, e-government emboldens citizens and businesses to question unreasonable procedures and their arbitrary application.’One of the basic precondition of existing of e-government is its openness, usability and existence online, thus being transparent. Within e-government public servants are expected to report their activities as well public and sometimes even private expenses for a broader public. Furthermore, e-government reduces the time which public servants spend on reporting their activities, thus leaving them less time to engage in corruption. All these conditions prevent public servants from engaging in corruption in traditional way.

Reducing the gap between citizens and government

Trust between citizens and government is also one of the key elements which lead to reducing corruption. If e-government tools are functioning efficiently and manage to provide a link between a government and citizens corruption behavior will not be tolerated from both sides. Many scholars have looked at trust as both cause and effect of corruption taking into account the endogeneity effect. Low trust increases corruption and e-government tools are targeted at reducing the gap and differences between citizens and government and thus increasing trust. ‘E-government has been proposed as a solution for increasing citizen communication with government agencies, and ultimately political trust’.

Therefore, in this essay I will analyze to which extent e-government has contributed to reducing corruption in Poland and Estonia by looking at five effects of introducing of e-government mentioned as well as the extent of use of internet by people which can strengthen or reduce their effect.

Estonia

Corruption level

Public sector corruption in Estonia is considered to be quite high in comparing to other countries of the EU. Examples of corruption in Estonia include power abuse by high public officials (Savisaar case) especially at the local level, requested bribes by officials, voluntary bribing of officials by citizens etc.

In order to analyze its scale I will look at the Estonian Corruption Statistics as of 2003 when the Panel Code on fighting and punishing corruption cases was adopted till 2009. Unfortunately, I could not access Estonian Corruption Statistics as of 2010 to 2014 due to Estonian Patent office website permission restriction. CPI index will also be used to look at the level of development of corruption.

According to CPI index the level of corruption in Estonia was reducing as of 2004 with the exception of 2007, 2011 and 2012 when it got higher in comparison to 2006 and 2010.

Estonian Corruption Statistics shows a similar trend confirming that the level of corruption in Estonia was decreasing, although as of 2006 with a backlash in 2007. However, it is worth noting that the increase of the level of corruption shown in 2004-2006 is related to the fact that due to the introduction of Panel Code many old corruption cases were brought before the court and registered (Ministry of Justice, 2009).

E-government development

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Estonia was left with Soviet infrastructure which in many cases became useless because of the break of a closed system of production which existed between Soviet Union’s members. A government of independent Estonia in early 90th already started to pay attention to the development of information systems – one of the first successful digital programs was Tiger’s Leap programming for computing education which became possible due to the cornerstone law adopted in 1997 – ‘Databases Act’. For the first time the purpose of creating an e-government was legally voiced and supported by major political powers. Already in 2000 Estonia launched first comprehensive e-government platforms and information systems many of which such as X-Road were unique and did not have analogues in the world. Such rapid growth of information technologies provided Estonia one of the highest ranks (13th in the world) in terms of e-government usage (E-government index, 2014).

If looking at the number of people in Estonia who are using e-government and to which extent it can thus reduce corruption it is important to look at how many people have access to the internet.

According to data provided by Estonian statistics office the number of households with internet connection reached 84% in 2014 which is high number. Therefore, we can conclude that 84% of population of Estonia were able to use e-government and it could have a substantial effect of the level of corruption in a country. However, in 2004 the number of households who had access to the internet was much lower – only 54%. Therefore, the effect of e-government on corruption was 30% less significant.

Disappearance of the middle man factor is closely related to the number of people who had access to the internet and used e-government. This factor can be analyzed by using again the statistics on how many people are having access to the internet and used it for interaction with public institutions. We can argue that the more people use internet and e-services the less public servants or middle men are involved in providing public services and thus are able to engage in corruption activities.

According to the graphs, we can see that as of 2004 the number of people who used internet to interact with public servants have increased by 30% thus reducing the ‘middle man corruption’ opportunities by 30%.

Flexibility of e-government services may be analyzed based on the data provided by EU evaluation of e-government performance. If we look at E-government Benchmark study regarding Estonia in such spheres as Ease of use, usability, speed of use and service delivery Estonia has scored good results from 60 to 80 points according to the research of 2014. Comparing to 2007 (the first E-government Benchmark report available online) such results have rapidly increased and are showing the trend to increase further. In 2007 Estonia was included to the group of second ranged countries by development of e-government scoring from 40 to 70 points according to the ease of use, usability, speed of use and service delivery. The development of these spheres over the period researched had a positive impact on reducing the corruption in a country the level of which was reducing with the similar pace with which e-government flexibility was developing according to the CPA index.

As mentioned in the theoretical framework, accountability of government helps to reduce corruption by making public servants to provide public information involving their activities to the citizens. In order to measure the accountability of Estonian government we can use the research provided by World Bank.

World Bank Governance Indicator shows the increase the accountability of governance with the development of e-government according to the graph provided above. However, the relation of development of e-government and the increase of government accountability is not that strong. Government accountability has been rapidly increasing in Estonia as of 1996, reached its peak in 2004 and grew constantly since that time with the peak in 2011. The most important years of e-government development in Estonia from the other hand can be considered 2003 (the launch of State Portal), 2005 (the launch of e-voting), 2008(e-health), e-prescription (2010) etc.

Transparency

Influence of e-government on transparency had been confirmed in many official statements of Estonian politicians but in order to prove the correlation between the level of development of e-government in the country and the level of transparency I conducted a linear regression function using Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPA) and E-government development index. Since CPA takes into account transparency as the primary factor while others are controlling it in order to measure corruption this index is also used for transparency measurement. (Transparency International, 2016).

Linear regression function is used to see how the level of e-government influenced the level of transparency and corruption for the period of 2004-201. Linear regression function is estimated by the least squares method.

ΔCorruption = a +   β* Δe-government + ε

Where ΔCorruption is the change of the Corruption Perception Index between 2004 and 2014, and Δe-government is the change of the E-government Development Index at the same period.

Trust

According to theoretical framework, e-governmental practices have a positive impact on increasing the trust to government overall. In order to test if this statement works Eurobarometer survey taken by European Commission will be used.

There was a constant trust to government as of 2005 to 2007. Therefore, having in mind the most important dates for the development of e-government in Estonia (2000,2003, 2005,2008,2011) we cannot say that there was a direct relation between the development of e-government and trust to government in Estonia. However, we can conclude that when the gap between citizens and government was reduced e-government initiatives were being implemented and actively used and the years of 2010-2011 and 2014 are the best evidences. Therefore, there is a positive correlation between the two variables in this case.

Therefore, in case of Estonia constant development of e-government services and their wider use have been having a positive effect on reducing corruption as of 2004 till 2014 by contributing to the development of the level of flexibility of government, its accountability, transparency, trust and the disappearance of the middle men. At the same time, e-government was more significantly effecting all of the abovementioned factors with the increase of number of people having access to internet and using it to contact the government.

Poland

Level of corruption

The level of corruption in Poland is bigger and more serious than in Estonia.  Main corruption cases are related to abuse of power by top public officials both on local and national level, bribe requests from civil servants, bribe ‘presents’ suggested by citizens to public officials etc. Corruption scandals involving politicians and high rank public servants are taking place more often than in Estonia. Scandals around PiS ministers in 2006, power abuse by deputy ministers in 2013 a tape scandal of 2015 were probably the most noticed political events which provided Poland a bad fame of being corrupt among its EU partners.

According to Transparency International Perception index corruption in Poland was constantly reducing from 2004 till 2014.

A sociological survey which has been taken in different regions of Poland from 1991 till 2013 showed that from 2004 the level of corruption according to Polish people started to reduce with a backlash in 2013 according to the line ‘dyrzym’ which means ‘big level of corruption’ as written in the table above. 2013 was considered to be worse in terms of corruption level by Poles because of one of the biggest corruption scandals which took place in November and followed by a 18 arrests of high officials including deputy ministers (IAR/PAP, 2013). Transparency International index from the other hand considered that year to be more successful specifically due to the abovementioned anti-corruption arrests.

E-government development

Implementation of ICT and e-governmental tools in Poland took a much slower pace than in Estonia. In comparison to Estonia Poland started to implement e-government during its EU integration process – some e-governmental tools where the necessary steps which EU declared as a part of Poland`s accession. Similarly to Estonian X-road system Poland introduced its e-government system called Public Information Bulletin. However, it was much less sophisticated serving mainly as a number of web-pages containing information about governmental services. The attempt to introduce more sophisticated system was made in 2002 by creating Wrota Polski (Polish Gateaway) concept. Therefore, the first public e-services were launched, however with many shortcomings and errors. Furthermore, the interest to public e-services has been remaining quite low till 2014. According to E-government development index Poland was ranked 36th in the world (E-government development index, 2014). The reasons of that is a relatively low access to internet, low skills in using e-government as well lack of understanding of e-government opportunities for citizens.

As defined in the theoretical framework, the bigger the access to internet is in the country – the bigger the use of e-government is and may be as well as its effect on corruption.

In 2003 right before joining the EU only 20% of households in Poland had access to internet. Even though Poland managed to increase this number quite fast within 10 years, Polish population is still facing the problem of digital exclusion and lower access of internet than in Estonia. In 2014 the access to internet had a bit more than 70% percent of population[1]. Therefore, the effect which e-government had on corruption was very mild as of 2004 till 2008 (25-50%) – for comparison in Estonia in 2004 54% of population had access to internet. Starting from 2009 when this number became higher than 50% and reached more than 70% in 2014 such effect can be notable though around 10% less than in Estonia.

Disappearance of the middle man factor as in the case of Estonia is estimated in relation to the number of people who are using internet to interact with public servants.

According to the graph, we can see that as of 2004 the number of people who were using internet to interact with public servants have increased by 23% thus reducing the ‘middle man corruption’ opportunities by 23%. The disappearance of the middle man factor correlates with the level of corruption by years, however the correlation is less evident than in Estonian case.

Flexibility

Flexibility of e-government will be evaluated as in the Estonian case according to such factors of EU E-government Benchmark report as ease of use, usability, speed of use and service delivery. In 2007-2009 (the first Benchmark report) in terms of usability, ease of use, speed and delivery Poland scored from 30-60% being very lose to Estonian results. In 2014 report showed the rapid growth of usability (80%) but almost no development in service delivery (33%) and speed of use (61%), while in Estonia the lowest score – 71% was given to the speed of use. Therefore, the speed of increasing of e-government flexibility in Poland from 2009 till 2014 was much lower than in Estonia and thus the effect on corruption fighting was less significant (EU Benchmark report,2014).

Accountability

As in Estonian case, the accountability of Estonian government with be measured by the World Bank Indicator.

According to the graph accountability of Polish government started to increase from 2007 with backlashes in 2011 and 2013. Such trends do not correlate with the development of e-government in Poland which according to E-government development index showed positive development from 2004 with backlashes in 2005 and 2010 and the most positive development in 2006 (due to implementation of E-Poland Strategy), 2008 (introduction of Digital Poland project), 2011(Start of E-government Action Plan) etc.

It had also been noticed that printed requests of citizens regarding control of government are processed in the first place and it limits the influence of e-government on accountability in Poland[1].

Transparency

As in Estonian case, many statements of public officials confirmed the positive impact of Polish e-government on transparency but I will prove the correlation using the same indices as in Estonian case. The method and the formula are explained above as well.

Linear regression shows a correlation between the two variables, however, the correlation coefficient is smaller – 0.4993. This means that if there is an improvement of e-government by 1% there is also the reduction of the level of corruption and increase of transparency by 0,5%.

Trust

Since Eurobarometer statistics on trust to government in Poland is not available I will use CBOS (Center of social surveys in Poland) research which is made every 2 years.

The graph shows slightly different trend if comparing to the development of e-government in the country. E-government development index also showed a decrease in 2010 and stable increase as of 2004-2008, 2011-2014. However, there was no decrease in 2004 and the development pace was not that rapid (E-government development index, 2004-2014).

However, as in Estonian case, we can conclude that when the gap between citizens and government was reduced e-government initiatives were being implemented and actively used and the example of 2004-2008 and 2011-2014 prove positive correlation in this case.

Conclusion

The level of corruption in both countries has been different – lower in Estonia and higher in Poland. Furthermore, while in Estonia public sector corruption took place mainly on the local level, in Poland majority of corruption cases involved public official from the central government. Nevertheless, both countries suffer from abuse of power from public servants, requested bribes by officials, voluntary bribing etc. but to different extent.

E-government is also more developed and efficient in Estonia than in Poland. While Estonia started digitization of the country after regaining its independence Poland started to introduce e-government when entering the EU. Estonian technologies and tools are unique, efficient and more popular when Polish e-services lack in efficiency and spread.

All the five factors influenced by the development of e-government in a country had a positive effect on corruption fighting in Estonia and Poland. Since the number of people having access to internet has been larger in Estonia e-government had a more significant effect on corruption.

The factor which had the biggest effect on reducing corruption in public sector with the development of e-government was the disappearance of the middle man. Such effect was positive for both countries however, stronger in Estonian case. When the number of citizens using internet to interact with officials was increasing, the number of civil servants was reducing as well as the corruption in both countries.

As for flexibility both countries showed similar results according to the first EU Benchmark report being even included in the same group of countries. However, as of 2009 Estonian e-government flexibility went up faster than in Poland and strenghthened coutry`s resilience to corruption by increasing its innovativeness and responsiveness.

E-government had a positive influence on accountability of government, however there was not a strong correlation. Positive influence of e-government on government`s accountability was confirmed by statements of officials, among others by Prime Minister Ansip in Estonia. At the same time, Polish e-government had very little effect on accountability of government and did not show a correlation according to the WBI. Furthermore, in Poland printed requests from citizens on public control are prioritized in contrary to Estonia where such requests are equal with electronic ones.

The correlation between e-government and corruption as well as transparency has been proved both in Estonian and Polish cases, using the CPI and EGDI indexes however the stronger correlation exists in Estonian case due to better development of e-government.

As for trust there was a positive correlation between the rise of trust reflected in reducing of gap between citizens and government and development of e-government at specific periods both in Estonia and Poland. It has also contributed to the decrease of corruption cases at those periods.

Thus, the implementation of e-government had a positive effect on all the above mentioned factors with few exceptions and thus had a reasonable effect on reducing the level of corruption in both countries – to larger extent in Estonia and lesser extent in Poland.

Finally, there were no cases of abusing of power by IT specialists when launching and managing e-government tools in both countries.

Institute of Innovative Governance

The Institute of Innovative Governance is an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental organization which aims to promote innovation through the interaction with various governmental and civil society actors and conduct high-quality policy research.

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