An X-Factor style contest which “names and fames” public officials who go above and beyond when it comes to serving their constituents, is offering a new way of combating corruption and boosting accountability in developing countries.
Now in its third year and operating annually in Nepal, Liberia, Pakistan and Mali, Integrity Idol is modelled on popular television shows such as Pop Idol. It sees the public nominate, watch and vote for civil servants who have shown impressive integrity in their work, culminating in a televized award ceremony for the finalists.
Through its emphasis on celebrating good officials — as opposed to “naming and shaming” bad ones — Integrity Idol’s founder, Blair Glencorse, says the contest offers a more effective alternative to traditional development approaches to social accountability.
“Our approach is more effective than naming and shaming because it reframes the issue as a solution rather than a problem. Too often the international aid system focuses on very large problems and tries to fix those — this is difficult and quickly frustrating. Corruption is a great example — donors have been trying to fight corruption for decades but with very little to show for it,” he said.
Furthermore, by shifting the debate from the “wrongdoers” to the “do-gooders,” and then working with those “good” officials to connect them with each other and share ideas, Integrity Idol can amplify their effectiveness while also inspiring hope in the public that there are honest bureaucrats out there, he said.
Such an approach is “much more politically feasible than pointing fingers at corrupt officials,” he added.
Since it was launched in 2014, Integrity Idol has grown rapidly in popularity and will soon be launching in four more countries — Morocco, Mexico, Indonesia and Nigeria. Since it first started, levels of audience participation have gone through the roof — rising from 10,000 votes cast to elect the first Nepalese winner, to nearly 100,000 in the most recent contest, Glencorse said.
The latest Nepalese winner, chosen from nearly 850 nominees and announced last week, was Dor Bikram Shrees. Shrees is the principal of Siddhababa higher secondary school in Gulmi and was commended for his role in promoting computer literacy as well as a culture of reading by requiring students to finish at least one book each month outside of their usual course of studies.
Another key difference between the Integrity Idol model and other accountability programs is that it relies largely on volunteers and receives no funding from donors. Furthermore, Glencorse said in recent months local people had started making financial pledges to continue the initiative every year.
Each country contest is managed by a small team of staff from the Accountability Lab, an NGO founded by Glencorse which works to educate and empower citizens to fight corruption and build the accountability of governments, and supplemented by volunteers.
“This is organic, locally owned and sustainable. It is really growing into a people-powered movement. That is very compelling and impactful, and something aid projects are much less able to generate,” he said.
The process begins with a two-month nomination period, through which anyone can put forward a government civil servant in their country. The Accountability Lab team of volunteers then collects the names, and with the help of an independent expert panel, selects the top five. The team then produces short films for each candidate, including footages of them doing their job and talking about the importance of demonstrating honesty, and these episodes are aired on national television and radio for 10 days alongside instructions for how people can vote for their favorite through SMS and online.
Facebook has become a critical tool for the competition and a way of engaging with young people, Glencorse said, who in some cases have created supporter pages for their favorite candidates and campaigned for them online.
“Among young people in particular we find Integrity Idol generates a lot more energy for change than other approaches — one volunteer told us that whereas before he thought the government was corrupt, now he knows there are good people in government and that he can be one of them,” Glencorse said.
Shrees, the latest crowned Idol and who returned home from the award ceremony to a hero’s welcome with banners, horns and garlands and hundreds of people on the streets, said the award serves as a motivational tool for officials.
“This award gives me more exposure which will encourage me to work even harder for the people of Nepal. I will always keep my promises and will never let down my supporters and the citizens who see me as an Integrity Idol,” he said.
Chief secretary of the government of Nepal, Somlal Subedi, who was at the award ceremony along with 700 national officials, dignitaries and media, added: “Accountability Lab has done a commendable job highlighting the positive aspects of civil service that are usually drowned out by negative attitudes about government.”
With plans underway to take the contest to four more countries over the coming year, Glencorse is confident the contest can go global.
“We think Integrity Idol can become a global movement, led by young people who are full of positive energy and are looking for role-models that can show them that values-based leadership exists; that not all government officials are corrupt; and that they can be part of a collective process to change the way decisions are made,” he said.