How To Make a Database of Proceedings Against Officials

Is the Serbian state interested in fighting corruption? A good question, to which many citizens would probably say: No. But how to show this is true? How to find good examples of unsuccessful fights against corruption without pointing to specific cases? How to detect loopholes in the system?

The answer imposes itself; this systematic problem can only be detected by systematic analysis.

That’s how we at CINS came up with the idea of making a database of proceedings against officials – a creative and innovative way of showing how important and powerful institutions like the Anti-Corruption Agency, ACAS, are not doing their job.

What makes this CINS project special is that we haven’t just written an investigative story in which we list all the problems. We wanted to show our readers, and the public, what the true problem was, and give the problem it’s first and last name.

We wanted to give the public an opportunity to see the data and all the information by themselves and get a chance to have important documents just a click away, so they can believe what their eyes tell them.

To achieve that, this project became a collaboration of journalistic skills and innovative open source technology in the purpose of reporting about corruption.

What the database is

The database of proceedings against officials is a unique database in Serbia. It contains information that you will not find on any government or institutional website.

First published in 2016, it was upgraded in December 2018 and now contains information on all proceedings initiated by the ACAS against public officials since 2010.

By public official, we mean practically anyone appointed to work for the state, from the President to ministers, mayors, municipal heads and directors of public companies. But not only them. An official is also a public prosecutor, judge, faculty dean or director of a school.

They have all had an obligation to send data on their assets and revenues every year to the Anti-Corruption Agency since 2010, and to inform it about any potential conflicts of interest while working for the state.

If they don’t report, for example, that they have an apartment in another city, or own a company, or that their wife or husband owns cars, the agency should initiate proceedings against them.

If they don’t report that they have employed a family member, the agency should also initiate a procedure.

All this information is available in one place, the CINS database.

For several months, CINS collected data, such as:

  • The list of officials that the agency initiated proceedings against, and the reason for initiating the proceedings.
  • The list of procedures initiated.
  • Who the officials that violated the law were.
  • Which officials the agency filed misdemeanour or criminal charges against.
  • What the prosecutors and courts did with a misdemeanour or criminal charges

The results

1. Who are the officials potentially breaching the law?

Are you interested in whether Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, President Aleksandar Vucic, former Mayor of Belgrade Dragan Djilas or former and current finance ministers Mladjan Dinkic or Sinisa Mali broke the law? All you have to do is type in their name in the search IME I PREZIME. The list contains more than 1,700 officials.

What you will find is the following: In the case of Sinisa Mali, today Minister of Finance, for example, we see that the agency launched three proceedings against him over 2014 and 2015, and that in all three cases he received the smallest possible “punishment” – a written warning.

2. In which towns do these officials work?

Do you live in Nis, and are you interested in officials from Nis that have come under the radar of the agency? In the search option MESTO, type the word “Nis” and the database will give you a list of all the officials from this town against whom a procedure has been or is being conducted. In this way, citizens and journalists can quickly get information about officials from their hometown and keep track of what these officials are doing.

The City of Belgrade is in the first place according to the data of the database, which makes sense, as so many state institutions are located in the capital. In second place is Novi Sad, again with a host of provincial officials. The third and fourth place is occupied by Nis and Kragujevac. Behind them comes Vranje. This tells us that the most irresponsible officials come from these towns and cities.

3. Institutions and positions

Do you want to know which current or former minister the agency has investigated? This option is also possible through search option FUNKCIJA (position). Simply write the Serbian word “minister” and the database will list all the ministers from several governments that have been on the radar of the agency. 

Analysis of the position that the officials held when they violated the law shows us that the most irresponsible ones were directors of public enterprises and, in second place, the employees of the highest bodies of local municipalities.

This search option is complemented by the search of a type of institution where officials work – ORGAN. We have thus enabled our readers to search, for example, for who the officials employed by the Agency for Privatization that violated the law are. Or, against which judges of the Basic Courts the agency started proceedings?

4. What were the outcomes of the proceedings?

During our work on this database, we constantly wondered what our readers would want to find, what would be useful search options for journalists, and what information could be important to NGOs. So, the process of organizing search options was long. Without the help and suggestions of our developer who worked with us on developing the database, we would not have been able to do something that is simple, on the one hand, and useful on the other.

We also strengthened and improved the four basic search options to provide data on how the agency “punished” these officials through four basic measures:

  • a warning 
  • a decision on law violation
  • recommended dismissal
  • misdemeanour and criminal charges

It was important for us to have this data because it shows how seriously the agency takes the fight against corruption, and whether irresponsible officials were eventually punished for violating the law. 

The results of the data were disappointing. In most cases, the agency went for the smallest punishment – a warning measure that was merely a written statement and does not entail any special consequences. In most cases, the most severe “penalties” – criminal charges – were dismissed by the prosecutors’ offices. No investigated officials went to jail, the data show.

The right recipe for creating a database

To create a database, more things need to come together to make the magic – a dedicated team, a good organization, clear knowledge of the topic and data you are working with, a programmer and a lot of patience.

When we started to work on this database, we wanted to include young journalists in the project, to give them a chance to work on a big project and learn from the beginning.

So two of our then participants at the CINS School of Investigative Journalism joined the team of experienced investigative reporters already working on this complex project. 

These were key elements:

– For a team to function and work on schedule, good organization is crucial. First, it means a clear division of work and coordination, a balanced distribution of work, regular meetings to monitor what has been done and plan the next steps, continuous communication and solving problems as they come, because they will surely exist even though you think it is clear from the beginning who is doing what.

– Another key element is Excel, an incredibly useful but also complex program that was the beginning and end of every day for us while working on the database. It was necessary for journalists to know how to work in it and to respect the strict rules that we agreed on. This means that if we say that the years are written without a dot, in the end, one person cannot write “2014”, the second “2014.”, and the third “2014. God”. Similarly, if we agreed that the figures should be written only as a number, they should not write “50 thousand dinars.”

Working in Excel obliges you also to something called cleaning and data processing, because errors will appear somewhere. But if you initially create a system of how data is entered, it will be much easier.

– Our programmer was very helpful here, because he marked all the cells and columns in the Excel that contained minor errors and omissions, such as extra space functions or incorrectly typed words.

– In the end, before publishing anything, CINS standard demanded fact-checking. So, one person who did not have anything to do with the work on the database checked all the data entered in the Excel for several days and pointed out potential flaws.

– Time. Databases cannot be done quickly. One of the key reasons in our case is that Serbia is still far from what is called digitization, and even further away from the idea of open data. In some countries, all these data would be publicly available and organized by the state. That’s not the case with us. The Anti-Corruption Agency publishes part of its information on its website in the form of various not-searchable scans and unorganized documents located in different places and not easy to find. The other part of the information is no longer available.

A few months after CINS released the database, the agency pulled key documents from its site. You cannot see any information about proceedings against officials, except on the CIJS website today.

In the end, time is an important factor in collecting data for any database because we had to send dozens of requests for access to information of public importance to institutions throughout Serbia to collect the documentation that we need.

If a person wanted to get information about all the proceedings against public officials in Serbia and to find the outcomes of these procedures, he or she would have to send nearly 1,000 requests for access to information of public importance to various institutions. Even if you have enough journalists and time to do this, it’s still not certain at the end of the process that you will collect all the information. This is because in Serbia institutions simply do not respond in time, do not send out everything you asked for, sometimes send out poorly scanned documents that are almost useless and sometimes send the wrong documents.

Although the deadline for responding to requests is 15 days, some institutions, and in the first place the Anti-Corruption Agency, has not yet responded to the submitted requests.

Despite the obstacles, a Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance exists in many countries around the world and is important for all journalists who want to collect data from various institutions and create a database of them.

In the end, there were many challenges over the course of several months while we were working on the database, and my role was a sort of coordinator of the entire project in addition to the journalistic work on the research. Having a person working with the whole team and knowing at all times how much has been done and how much more you need to do is very important. That is the only way you can keep up, especially when the project lasts for six months and time can easily slip away.

Why GitHub

Reporting about fight against corruption through open source tools and open data was the main idea when we decided to make the entire database code publicly available at GitHub.

The idea is that anyone who wants to do something similar can make use of our code and make something new. All you need is knowledge in R programming language or a programmer that can re-use the code for you. Therefore, you can go to the CINS profile on the GitHub platform at any time and download the database code.

Database Proceedings Against Public Officials is the first example of data made available by journalists in the form of open-source code in Serbia. The project was also presented at the Open Data Week in early April 2019 and CINS was the first media in Serbia to participate in the event.

In May 2019, the database was nominated for the international journalistic award Data Journalism Awards 2019. It seems to me that we did a good job.

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