Russian activists are using a community website to fight local corruption

Russian graffiti. Image: Beautiful Petersberg.

How do you improve your neighbourhood in a country as corrupt as Russia? Well, in some of its biggest cities, activists are using a website designed to report and address corruption in their local community.

Beautiful Petersburg – or Красивый Петербург, if you prefer – was developed by activist Krasimir Vransko to highlight the way in which political officials were failing to use their community budgets effectively: by allowing rubbish to pile up in the streets, for example, or by failing to repair vandalised areas.

The site encourages users to upload photos of problem areas in their neighbourhoods; overflowing bins, lack of disability access to government buildings, parks used as dumping grounds, that sort of thing. Less than two minutes after submitting the problem, a request for action is forwarded to the relevant city department, after which the officials have 30 days to respond. These problems range from the minor (painting over graffiti and shovelling snow), to major structural changes (repaving roads and installing access ramps across an entire borough).

A map of some of the problems users have highlighted in St Petersberg. Image: Beautiful Petersberg.

Corruption is a serious problem for Russian politics. In its 2014 ranking, Transparency International rated the country 136th, down from 127th in 2013. Back in 1999, Transparency International Russia founded a number of centres dedicated to collating and investigating allegations of corruption:  including land parcelling, budget mismanagement, anti-corruption educational programs and election monitoring.

Run as a non-profit, non-partisan organisation, TI Russia has achieved a lot – but it’s been unable to prevent burnout in community activists. Politicians and protestors are regularly threatened and forced into exile; activists describe campaigns dragging on for decades with very little change; and as Russia’s Transparency ranking falls, disillusionment is common. 


That’s where Beautiful Petersburg comes in. “An individual’s environment is important,” explains Anatoliy Kanioukov, an assistant to the Deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, and a coordinator on the Moskovsky and Leningrad regions of Beautiful Petersburg. “When you see the area around your house full of litter, broken playground swings, cars abandoned on front lawns, untreated potholes, it impacts your mood and you start to wonder if it is worth taking care of your own home.”

The activists behind Beautiful Petersburg wanted a more consistent and reliable response to urban problems, while simultaneously demonstrating to citizens that it was worth following up on relatively minor issues. “Within 26 months, the citizens sent over 65,000 requests and over 20,000 issues were resolved. One request is a small good deed – but 20,000 small victories have changed the face of the city.”

The movement behind Beautiful Petersburg has grown year on year: activists have been offering on-the-ground support to local groups protesting park closures, and investigating funding misappropriation within government building projects. Success stories are displayed prominently on the website and the project has received attention from high-profile Russian activist, Alexei Navalny who recently sought political asylum in the UK.

Despite the name, Beautiful Petersburg has active groups in Moscow, Novosibirsk and many other highly populated areas. All requests are displayed on a map of the affected area; and citizens are able to see their neighbours reporting the same issues.

This is a game of strength in numbers. This constant affirmation that change is possible and that the government can be held to account is a new way of thinking for many Russian citizens.

When asked what’s next for Beautiful Petersburg Kanioukov, says that the website is only the beginning. By demonstrating how powerful individual voices can be online, activists are hoping to fundamentally change the way Russian citizens view public spending.

Many assume that the corruption within Russian politics is insurmountable. But as Kanioukov says: “Through caring for the surrounding space a person becomes a master in his backyard, his town and ultimately his country.”

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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