Dear Corruption Watch: I was reading a piece on rampant corruption in India and the prevailing dispensation’s undertaking to root it out. One of the initiatives was to implement an online application system for the granting of certain permits. Is this something worth exploring in South Africa?
Mr E Permit
Dear Mr E Permit
Your question refers to the initiatives by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to introduce online applications for environmental and industrial permits. The stated intention is that it will remove bureaucracy and ministerial discretion, thus aiding in the fight against corruption.
This is certainly an idea worth developing in South Africa, although it is not entirely new.
In 2011, the South African government launched a pioneering online system to counter corruption and ensure transparency during the application and granting of mining rights, permits and prospecting licences. The online application system was a response to various administrative and legislative problems that had resulted in some officials engaging in corruption.
Quite apart from those initiatives, it seems that e-systems are the way many of our interactions with the government will be regulated in future. As some recent Corruption Watch articles have highlighted, a major review conducted by the chief procurement officer in the Treasury has proposed the introduction of e-tendering and online procurement systems.
We are following a global trend. More and more countries make use of information technology to provide certain services to the public. This approach, often referred to as “e-government”, can help reduce the opportunities for corruption in several ways.
For starters, an online system obviates the one-on-one interface between the person or entity applying for the permit and the decision-maker.
For an act to be construed as “corrupt” in terms of South African corruption legislation, there must be an offeror of an unlawful benefit as well as an accepter of that benefit. This can only happen when there are personal interactions between public officials and private entities. Introducing online application systems leaves little room for unjustified preferential treatment or the payment or the solicitation of bribes.
Second, the use of computers requires standardised and explicit procedures, which reduces abuse of discretion and other opportunities for corruption. We can expect an online application process to result in more transparency of the rules and standards according to which a permit application is adjudicated.
Third, computerised procedures make it possible to track decisions and actions and thus serve as an additional deterrent to corruption.
And with greater access to information and a more accessible, published record of past decisions, the online system may also narrow the discretion conferred upon decision-makers and foster a more consistent process of adjudicating applications.
Corruption reduction is not the only benefit
Quite apart from the possibility of a reduction in corruption, moving permit applications to an online platform makes the process more streamlined, efficient and accessible. In Korea, for example, citizens can already monitor, in real time, the progress of an online application for permits or licences.
All in all, it is no surprise that moving an application process for a permit or a licence to an online platform has been lauded in a number of countries.
Of course, an online application system does not replace other prevention, detection and enforcement measures, which are all still important. But the promotion of such e-systems appears to be a step in the right direction to fight the corruption that often accompanies the exercise of discretionary power.
Put differently, an online application system could be an effective way, along with other initiatives that are implemented within a broader anti-corruption plan, to root out corrupt dealings.
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• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times