South Korea’s Street-Level Transparency

The country removes the anonymousness of government by publicly identifying the people responsible for particular projects on street signs. It’s an anti-corruption approach that has lots of possibilities for U.S. governments.
May 2014
This sidewalk sign in Seoul, South Korea, includes a description of the construction project underway as well as photographs and phone numbers of the people directly responsible for the project. Mark Funkhouser
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

This story is part of Governing's annual International issue.

I was in Seoul, South Korea, last fall, and I was so surprised by a sidewalk sign I saw on one of the streets that I stopped and took a picture of it. It was a large, temporary sign with a description of the sidewalk construction project that was under way, with beginning and end dates noted in both English and Korean. The unusual feature that caught my attention, however, was that the sign prominently displayed the photographs and phone numbers of the people directly responsible for the project.

Here in America, we talk a lot about transparency and government’s need to be responsive to the public, but I have never seen anything like what I saw in Seoul. To the American public, government tends to be a big anonymous “they,” as in “they have started to tear up the sidewalk for some reason and it’s really annoying and is hurting my business.” You might see the occasional “your tax dollars at work” sign showing the name of the mayor or other high-level officials, but it’s understood that the purpose of that kind of sign is to give credit to those officials, not to identify specific individuals who are accountable for the project and can answer questions and address concerns.

When I began to inquire about the Seoul sign, I got another surprise. It is part of a policy initiative begun by the city in 1999 to combat corruption. The country had suffered an economic shock, and the mayor at that time felt that a key to enabling Seoul to survive the downturn was for city government to be more efficient. Corruption was seen as diminishing efficiency. The officials in charge of the program report that it has improved communication and trust between citizens and the government, that public officials’ sense of duty and pride have increased, and that those officials are doing a better job of supervising contractors. In 2012 the National Assembly expanded the Seoul system to the entire country.

The reason the origin of the program surprised me is because in the United States we rarely think about the connection between efficiency and corruption. It seems like everything we do to aid efficiency limits transparency and everything we do to combat corruption adds rules, regulations and red tape that makes programs less efficient. We rock back and forth between extremes -- on the one hand, privatizing programs to streamline them and make them less bureaucratic and more efficient, and on the other, adding more and more contracting procedures and documentation requirements designed to combat the scandal du jour.

The street-level transparency developed by the Koreans, using the power of the photograph, is direct and simple. I can imagine lots of possibilities for governments in the United States that might adopt this approach, not only for construction projects but also for services such as snow removal, park maintenance and public safety. It wouldn’t take long for social media, bloggers and neighborhood listservs to grab onto such a system, opening possibilities for some real transparency. And the public would finally know exactly who “they” are.

Think of it as the crowdsourcing of accountability. Maybe we need fewer rules and regulations and more names and faces.