The chair of Armenia’s Corruption Prevention Commission says artificial intelligence is helping agency representatives combat corruption and “hold themselves and other sections of government accountable to the citizens they serve.” A central challenge in implementing the new technology, the official adds, is striking a proper balance between privacy protection and the public interest.
In a public policy paper, titled Leveraging AI to Counter Corruption in Armenia, Haykuhi Harutyunyan describes how AI is enhancing the watchdog agency’s ability to scrutinize asset declarations filed by politicians and public servants, making it easier to detect potential cases of fraud and malfeasance.
“The CPC’s experience underscores that data-driven technologies can be a force for accountable governance. At the same time, it is important for institutions that are deploying these tools to build relationships of trust with stakeholders across government, civil society, and the public sector,” Harutyunyan writes in the paper.
The CPC was established in late 2019, following the popular unrest that swept Nikol Pashinyan’s reformist government into power. Among the CPC’s responsibilities at the time was reviewing asset declarations filed annually by roughly 3,500 government officials. The digital platform used in 2019 to record and store declaration information was so cumbersome and inefficient that CPC watchdogs could only review “a tiny fraction of the available declarations,” Harutyunyan writes.
“In theory, the declarations provide the public with a reasonably exhaustive picture of officials’ income, expenditures, and activities,” Harutyunyan says. “In practice, however, the electronic platform was more a box-checking exercise—aimed at meeting the formal demands of the national anticorruption strategy—than an effective tool for holding officials accountable.”
To improve the system, the CPC incorporated artificial intelligence/machine learning technology into the digital platform. The changes to date have streamlined data collection and entry while enhancing searchability. Another key improvement: watchdogs can now easily cross-check asset declarations with data in systems maintained by other state agencies.
In addition, the filing requirement has been significantly expanded. Now, about 7,000 government officials, along with all household members, must submit asset declarations. Up to 35,000 declarations are expected to be filed during the next year.
A second phase of improvements is due to start soon. A specially developed algorithmic tool will be employed to automatically flag discrepancies, including possible conflicts interest, illicit dealings and other forms of improper behavior. AI technology will also enable the system to “learn from the data it processes, helping us to identify new types of corrupt and deceptive practices,” Harutyunyan says in the paper, which was published with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. Flagged declarations will be subject to intensified scrutiny.
Implementing the changes has not been easy, according to the CPC chief. One unanticipated challenge was getting local IT companies to participate in developing the digital platform’s new features. Armenia has a strong IT sector, but local programmers were initially skeptical of the process.
“Given past precedents of cronyism and corruption, local companies doubted that a public institution would assess their applications [tenders] fairly. As a result, none were received by the stated deadline. To encourage more local participation, the CPC has organized meetings and discussions with local IT companies,” Harutyunyan says.
Another challenge for the CPC was determining what information in the searchable system would be open to public inspection. Ultimately, agency officials decided that access to the raw data contained in asset declarations will be available to all, but the public won’t be able to see whether AI tools have flagged an individual declaration as suspicious. Such an arrangement conforms to EU data protection standards and can bolster trust in the system, Harutyunyan notes.
“These efforts will not only make the platform privacy compliant, but also ensure adequate functionality and protect the rights of all users,” Harutyunyan says.
Eurasianet receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.