Information Technology and Public Sector Corruption

Richard Heeks


Corruption is a major problem for many parts of the public sector. One dominant vision of corruption restraint - the 'Panoptic vision' - sees information technology (IT) as a key enabler of management control. This paper presents five short case studies of IT and public sector corruption to test the realities of this Panoptic vision. From these it is concluded that, while IT sometimes does detect and remove corruption, it can also have no effect or even provide new corruption opportunities for some public servants. Management of corruption is ultimately shaped more by management decisions and by broader organisational and environmental factors than it is by technology. Put simply, IT-based systems guided by the Panoptic vision affect symptoms of a corrupt system rather than causes. Public managers must therefore adopt a more holistic vision of corruption control. They must also recognise the link between IT and corruption in the planning of some public sector information systems.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis question 

  1. What is corruption? Does it need to be controlled? [part 1]
  2. What impact does IT have on corruption? [parts 2 & 3]
  3. What determines the impact of IT on corruption: the technology itself or something else? [part 4]

Development questions

  1. Is corruption a universal problem or one confined to certain countries and sectors? Check any assumptions you may have made about the location of cases 1-5.
  2. Can IT stop corruption? Can IT cause corruption?
  3. What needs to be done to reduce corruption? Does IT have a role to play? If you are familiar with a specific example of corruption, you can relate your answers to that example.
  4. Is IT likely to be a tool of repression or of emancipation in the hands of government?