How FIFA Can Kick Corruption With Open Data

In the post-glow haze of the U.S. Women’s soccer team handing down a righteous drubbing to Japan, it’s easy to gloss over the seedy underbelly that made the game possible.

FIFA, football’s world governing body, has been engulfed by claims of widespread corruption since the early hours of May 27, when Swiss police raided a luxury hotel in Zurich and arrested seven of its top executives.

The seven were held at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has indicted a total of 14 current and former FIFA officials and associates on charges of “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption following a major inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Makes for a lurid Hollywood story line, where open data could be the unlikely hero.

We need to find ways of giving more support and encouragement to those in business, civil society and the media who are working to fight corruption — including by expanding the use of open data globally, something that could also play a crucial role in cleaning up football.”

–British Prime Minister David Cameron

During the tidal wave of corruption allegations, David Cameron has called for reforms including expanding the use of open data.

FIFA Runs World Football

FIFA is a global juggernaut. The World Cup is the most-watched sporting event in the world, larger even than the Olympics, and generates billions of dollars in revenue from corporate sponsors, broadcasting rights, and merchandising. In recent years it has been dogged by accusations of corruption, particularly the award of the 2022 World Cup to the tiny but rich and influential Gulf state of Qatar. In December 2014, FIFA chose not to release its own investigation into corruption, instead releasing an executive summary which it said exonerated the bidding process. The report’s independent author, American lawyer Michael Garcia, resigned in protest.

These arrests and investigations cast doubt over the transparency and honesty for the process of allocating World Cup tournaments; electing its president; and the administration of funds, including those earmarked for improving football facilities in some of FIFA’s poorer members.

Although FIFA exists as a supranational and non-governmental organization, it maintains a significant responsibility to the shared interests of millions of fans around the world. Football’s global popularity means that FIFA’s governance has wide-ranging implications for society too. This is particularly true of decisions about hosting the World Cup, which is often tied to large-scale government investment in infrastructure and even extends to law-making. Brazil spent up to £10bn hosting the 2014 World Cup and had to legalize the sale of beer at matches.

Why FIFA Should Adopt Open Data Policies

Following Sepp Blatter’s resignation, FIFA is gathering its executive committee this month to plan for a presidential election, expected to take place in mid-December. According to The Guardian:

Open data should form the cornerstone of any prospective candidate’s manifesto. It can help Fifa make better spending decisions and ensure partners deliver value for money, restore the trust of the international football community.

FIFA’s lengthy annual financial report gives summaries of financial expenditure, budgeted at £184m for operations and governance alone in 2016, but individual transactions are not published. Publishing spending data encourages better spending decisions. If all FIFA’s spendings — which totaled around £3.5bn between 2011 and 2014 — were made open, it would encourage much more efficiency.

FIFA plans to spend around £140m next year on development projects to support its member organizations’ activities, ranging from technical development to education, medicine and science. Open data about awarded contracts and performance would significantly increase accountability in the delivery of this investment.

And alongside comprehensive spending data, releasing data related to governance would drastically reduce FIFA’s opaqueness. For example, individual salaries of senior FIFA officials remain unknown despite strong calls for their disclosure, in particular from an independent governance committee set up in 2011 in the wake of more corruption allegations. The release of salary data for executive committee members would represent a significant step towards transparency.

Open data can act as the catalyst for this reform. Adopting clear open data policies could signify a new dawn for FIFA under a new president. It could be the way to restore trust in it as the global face of football.