Solving Cities

Can open data prevent public corruption in Brazil?

Posting in Government

Brazil's Transparency Portal is shining a light on the nation's bureaucracy.

Photo by Cyro A. Silva/Flickr

Brazil is no stranger to bureaucracy. For decades, Brazil's politics resembled the obfuscated, and sometimes tainted, dealings of New York's Tammany Hall. The maxim "Rouba mas faz," typifies this tradition. "He steals," residents have said of former São Paulo Mayor Paulo Maluf, who allegedly stashed away $1 billion USD of public funds, "but he gets things done."

That tradition, however, is beginning to erode. In addition to cracking down on individual crimes like embezzlement, the government is employing a data transparency mechanism to create what McKinsey consultants Marcos Cruz and Alexandre Lazarow call "a new culture of accountability."

Key to that effort is Brazil's Transparency Portal. Launched in 2004, the Transparency Portal now tracks nearly $4.8 trillion of government funds. Everything from charges on state-issued credit cards to contracts related to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games must be posted on the site within 24-hours.

In spite of some early opposition, the effort seems to be working. More than two million Brazilians visit the site each year. The site's willingness to breach previously-unmentioned topics such as personal income adds to its allure. In July, for example, the Transparency Portal released the salary data for 700,000 state employees. According to the report, a public sector doctor in Brazil earns $1,580 USD per month, whereas a member of the Brazilian Senate earns $11,761 USD per month.

Information like this is very good for Brazil, labor lawyer Felipe Cardoso told the Rio Times Online. "Everybody has the right to know how much public servants earn because they are paid by taxes," he said.

Is Brazil's Transparency Portal enough to clean up public corruption? On this issue, the jury is still out. As Gregory Michiner of Al Jazeera pointed out Aug. 16, Brazil's existing democracy is based upon immunity for the previous dictatorship. That, coupled with a 6 percent conviction rate for political scandals, means that while Brazil is taking promising steps in the right direction, it still has miles left to go.

[McKinsey Quarterly]

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Claire Lambrecht

Contributing Writer

Claire Lambrecht has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and CBS MoneyWatch. Previously, she taught English as a Teach for America Corps Member and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, and the Arthur M. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure