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The Fix: “Integrity Idol”

Nationwide contests in developing countries turn honest public officials into celebrities. Let’s convince the DC-based group behind the project to bring it here

Nationwide contests in developing countries turn honest public officials into celebrities. Let’s convince the DC-based group behind the project to bring it here

A few months ago, Philadelphia’s Chief Integrity Officer and Inspector General awarded the Joan Markham Award for Integrity to Ralph DiPietro, deputy commissioner for Licenses and Inspections, to celebrate his “strong commitment to integrity, diligence and transparency on behalf of the City of Philadelphia.” DiPietro, L&I’s integrity officer, got $1,000, a certificate, a photo on a wall, and a press release announcing his victory.

Perhaps you’ve heard of him? I thought not.

Maybe that’s because the magnitude of DiPietro’s accomplishment was relatively small. Inspector General Amy Kurland said DiPietro has helped to shift the culture of the scandal-plagued L&I, from one of rampant corruption to one in which cases of bad actors are few and far between. But Kurland was thin on specifics, and the city didn’t exactly trumpet DiPietro’s accomplishments from the ramparts.

“The number one cause of instability is corruption,” Glencorse says. “Unless you can form a solid relationship between officials and citizens, you won’t get anywhere. And it has to be a ground-up approach. Top-down hasn’t worked.”

Still, if DiPietro is truly a model of integrity, he should be a local hero. If he happened to live in Nepal or six other developing countries, he could be a national hero, recognized on the street the way we recognize disgraced elected officials like Chaka Fattah, and Seth Williams, and Kathleen Kane, the kind of celebrity we most need in the world. He could be an Integrity Idol.

A project of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Accountability Lab, Integrity Idol is an annual contest to find and celebrate the best, most honest, most helpful public servants in countries that are often rife with corruption. It operates on a simple premise that could be powerful enough to change the world: What if instead of just putting corrupt officials behind bars, we put honest officials on TV?

“We are holding up role models for others to believe in and imitate,” says Accountability Lab founder and Executive Director Blair Glencorse. “That’s very powerful.”

Do Something

The idea for Integrity Idol came to Glencorse in 2014, when he was with his team in Nepal watching that country’s version of American Idol and talking about how to create a popular movement around the notion of reform. Someone suggested, half-jokingly, Integrity Idol. “In the beginning, it was kind of a stunt—funny, but with a serious goal,” Glencorse says.

That first year, Accountability Lab got 300 nominations, which a well-respected panel whittled down to five finalists, who they filmed and interviewed to air on TV and radio all over the country. Those interviews reached around 4 million people, nearly 10 percent of the population. Through an SMS voting system, tens of thousands of Nepali picked the winner: Gyan Mani, a Chief District Officer in a poor region of the country, who routed out corruption in (among other places) the local schools.

In 2017, more than 90,000 Nepali cast votes for the three finalists—an agriculture officer, a forestry official and a math teacher. And six other countries now have their own Integrity Idol: Liberia, South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mali and Sri Lanka, where it is run by Transparency International. “It has led to a fantastic conversation about integrity, and who we want in government,” Glencorse says. “There is implicit criticism, by saying this is how we should all be, but it is through positive examples.”

And something else has happened: The Idols have become celebrities who people want to meet and emulate. (In a 2015 TEDx Talk, Glencorse shows an image of Nepal Idol Mani, followed by dozens of young Nepali, chanting “He is the people’s winner!”) Accountability Lab is working with winners and runners-up in each of the countries to form coalitions to advocate and educate around issues, like health care reform and education.

In some countries, Glencorse says Idols are now working with civil service training programs to develop curricula and mentor new public servants on doing their jobs with integrity. They have launched a Meet the Idols campaign, sending winners and nominees into schools and universities to spread the idea of ethical behavior in all professions. And, they have begun hosting Integrity Summits in each country, bringing together winners and nominees to work together on projects. The most recent one in Nepal had 200 attendees.

Custom Halo

Glencorse, who was raised in England and moved to D.C. for college, started Accountability Lab after stints at both the World Bank, and a D.C.-based think tank run by Ashraf Ghani, now Afghanistan’s president. Several years ago, Glencorse traveled to southern Nepal, to ask young people about the challenges in their lives. He expected them to talk about education, health care, running water—basics that the poor region lacks. But that wasn’t, to them, the most important thing.

“They said, ‘We want accountability, and justice, and the people in power to stop being corrupt,’” recalls Glencorse. “They realized that corruption was what was holding them back. That’s what people care about.”

It was a revelation. As Glencorse later learned, corruption around the world costs around $1 trillion a year, and causes around 3.6 million deaths. He started Accountability Lab to combat those horrifying statistics. In addition to Integrity Idol, Accountability Lab runs a year-long social impact incubator in Liberia, Mali, Nepal and Pakistan, helping young citizens—called “accountapreneurs”—to build “sustainable, effective tools for accountability, participation and social impact in their societies.”

Integrity Idol operates on a simple premise that could be powerful enough to change the world: What if instead of just putting corrupt officials behind bars, we put honest officials on TV?

In 2014, it launched the Honesty Oscars, to “celebrate the stars who are working for transparency and accountability around the world.” And it runs Citizens HelpDesks in Nepal, Mali and Liberia that send young people out to collect data about the needs of local communities and where those needs are being thwarted by corrupt officials. They then pass the information to reformers and other power-holders who can help to solve the problems.

“The number one cause of instability is corruption,” he says. “Unless you can form a solid relationship between officials and citizens, you won’t get anywhere. And it has to be a ground-up approach. Top-down hasn’t worked.”

So far, there is no Integrity Idol here, or in any developed country, in part because the culture of corruption is more diffuse—most people are not expected to pay bribes at regular junctures in their lives—and in part because the media market is so big and expensive. But Glencorse says he is now starting to think about how to launch it in the United States, starting with one city at a time. Perhaps we could suggest Philadelphia—the birthplace of America—as the first city to bring bring back integrity?

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We certainly need it. Without it, we risk more of what we’ve seen: An apathy bred from the sinking feeling that the people we entrust with our public good are not trustworthy, are out to serve their own and special interest needs, are skirting the line between corrupt and the usual (but legal) way of doing business. We watch, every few months, as another elected official is hauled off in handcuffs, eventually convicted of penny ante fraud or fundraising malfeasance. We see the same old usual suspects wielding all the power—and doling out favors to those who got them there.

And apathy is the death knell of democracy. It is low voter turnout even in elections that really matter. A shrug when school buildings are falling down around our children. A silence when City Council makes decisions, before a virtually empty chamber, that affect us all. A tacit approval, via reelection, when an official admits to hardly working, as in the case of City Commissioner Anthony Clark. A sense of hopelessness that anything will change, because no one cares to change it. Which leads, again, to the appalling lack of participation in our public life.

The City’s Award for Integrity is a start—at least, it’s an acknowledgement that those among us who strive to be good actors are worth celebrating. But we need to do more to make the DiPietros among us into the civic heroes that they are, to create what Glencorse calls a “virtuous circle of reform”—until everyone is like DiPietro.

We’ll start: Do you know any public officials who deserve to be idolized for their integrity? Let us know and we’ll spread the word.

The Fix is made possible through a grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. The Harrison Foundation does not exercise editorial control or approval over the content of any material published by The Philadelphia Citizen.

Photo: Accountability Lab

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