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Prominent Russian Activist Founded a Well-Known Anti-Corruption Website

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, August 8 2013

Aleksei Navalny (Flickr/acidpolly)

A prominent Russian anti-corruption activist who was recently convicted of what many view as trumped-up charges of embezzlement, was, in a surprising turn of events, released after only a day, pending an appeal. The media coverage of Aleksei Navalny makes him sound like a one man anti-corruption show, but while he may lead, he is far from alone in his quest. Navalny founded RosPil, an anti-corruption website that relies on volunteers to peruse publicly available documents for signs of corruption.

The focus of RosPil is on state procurement and government contracts. Navalny started the site after he saw a suspicious contract that called for a two million dollar software platform to be built in 16 days. He blogged about the contract, clear evidence of corruption, and enough public furor was heard that the contract was shortly annulled and the corrupt official kicked out of office.

In just the first three months of RosPil, seven contracts were successfully exposed as corrupt and ultimately annulled, which saved approximately 337 million rubles.

The Sunlight Foundation* breaks down the crowdsourcing process on RosPil:

Here’s how the site works: once the documents are posted on the site, they are reviewed by the thousands of individuals who visit the site everyday. If any of them seem to be particularly suspect, the contract will be flagged for review by the site’s experts, lawyers who receive modest compensation through donations made to the site. In the case that there does appear to be corruption, the lawyers will file a lawsuit and submit a complaint to the relevant government agency. All contracts that are found to be corrupt are posted on the sites front page, providing a public archive of corruption in Russia that feeds public frustration.

The Sunlight Foundation's Greg Brown says that, in spite of its limits and its controversial founder, the site should be a model for other anti-corruption work:

While Navalny’s intentions and RosPil’s effectiveness may be questionable, there are some important lessons to learn from the experiment. First, it reveals the potential power of an informed public to tackle government corruption. Once corrupt contracts are brought to light, it takes only a critical mass of public anger to make the necessary changes. While this approach may be limited to small, incremental change, it seems a necessary step on the road to deeper, more meaningful anti-corruption reform. Second, the work of the inept and unwilling government agencies responsible for anti-corruption could be replicated in-part by a dedicated group of citizen volunteers. Tech-empowered crowdsourcing is at the heart of the RosPil model: it keeps costs down, makes it harder for the government to censor their work, and effectively tracks thousands of government documents using the knowledge of thousands of participants.

Another advantage of crowdsourcing anti-corruption work? If Navalny does eventually end up behind bars, as many suspect will still happen, his anti-corruption efforts will not have to stop when he goes.

*Disclosure: Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are consultants to the Sunlight Foundation. They are, respectively, the Editorial Director and Publisher of techPresident.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.