One thing is true of all governments, the most reliable records are Tax records. That is one of the coolest quotes from a very cool movie (which is saying a lot). In V for Vendetta, the heroes try to piece together a puzzle by visiting the tax records to locate some missing information, in real-life we’re also faced with the same problem. No matter how corrupt or bureaucratic you think the government is, there will always be a paper-trail for money and sooner or later someone will find it. The solution for a crony-heavy government was simple, load the system with bureaucracy so no one will find out. The problem was while no ‘one’ may have found out, a group of inspired citizens armed with nothing more than a proper system can troll down all the bureaucratic walls you can build.
A couple of years ago, the Guardian newspaper set out to go through all the tax and expense claims of every single member of parliament. While the fallout from the reports were clear, less publicity was given to the actual method that the newspaper used. People naturally assumed that when the news read “Guardian reports MP claims….” , that a regular journalist working for the paper trolled through some documentation and arrived at the results. Usually the assumption includes a snarly eyed journalist with big black thick-framed glasses, gulping down gallons of coffee while his tie came loose, just an assumption of course.
How the Guardian Crowdsourced Auditing
What really happened could not further from what people assumed.
What really happened was the only reasonable way to solve the problem. The problem being that years of bureaucratic expense reports were hidden in a treasure trove of 700,000 heavily edited documents, and while some of the expense claims were ‘suspect’ and ‘falacious’ , most were genuine (or so we believe). This of course would make it impossible for any single reporter to go through, even if you narrowed it down to just one MP. The Guardian also reports that some MP filed as many as 2,000 documents over 4 year while some filed less than 40.
So the Guardian did the next best thing, they scanned every single document and published it online. Then the broke down the documents into easily readable chunks and hoped their readers would join in the monumental investigative effort to actually go through and flag every single suspicious entry.
The instructions of the website were simple:
How to get involved:
Step 1: Find a document
Step 2: Decide what kind of thing it is and whether it’s interesting
Step 3: Copy out any individual entries
Step 4: Make any specific observations about why a claim deserves further scrutiny
Examples of things to look out for: food bills, repeated claims for less than £250 (the limit for claims not backed up by a receipt), and rejected claims.
All the MPs’ records are on there now – so let us know what you find.
The Guardian located things that any sane person would have missed, things like a $225 pen or a misc claim for more than $3000 from Gordon Brown. If you click the link you’ll notice the actual reason for the claim is blacked out, don’t reload the page, the actual page was blacked out and people are now asking what the hell was it for?
It just goes to show that regardless of how small a number you think, if you get the right crowd behind the audits, nothing will escape them, not even when it’s buried under 700,000 pages of heavily edited expense reports!! So then if you take a soft loan for $250 million to buy cattle–but buy luxury condos instead, do you really think you’re going to get away with it?
I wonder if we’ll ever get to do this in Malaysia. I remember Tony Pua being allowed to read the Toll Concession contracts, now as smart as he might be (and I really doubt any Malaysian politician is smart), he’s just one man. All we really need to do at this point is break down the contract into single pages, upload those pages online and let the Malaysian public go through the documents looking for the ‘lop-sided’ contracts.
Why also do we wait impatiently every year for the Auditor-Generals report, it appears that many Malaysian (particularly those in the opposition) would gladly audit the tax and expense records of Government officials once their made public. We can crowdsource our auditing–it’ll be fun, and a whole lot cheaper than hiring consultants.
So I really wonder if Malaysia Boleh? It’s not a matter of Boleh or not Boleh, it’s more a matter of making the information transparent and freely available, the rest will take care of itself.