The world was a different place when we launched our Integrity Icon campaign five years ago. If we think of changes in everything from political leadership to cultural or social trends – the things we were supporting, reading or listening to in 2014 are probably not the same today. Integrity Icon was even known as Integrity Idol – and functioned in a different space.  These trends have been top-of-mind for us due to recent incidents that have tested the Lab’s processes. By Global Communications Director Sheena Adams


The Integrity Icon campaign begins with public nominations early in the year and culminates in awards ceremonies at the end of the year to “name and fame” 5 Icons in each country. In 2014, when Accountability Lab launched Integrity Icon in Nepal, it was a tiny team of sleepless staffers working on an innovative idea to shift behaviors. The impact was easily and widely communicated in newspapers, on international TV news and via a network of volunteers who continue to help us ensure that the campaign remains inclusive. Its impact has grown and with it, public support. In recent years, the campaign has launched in Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa and Mexico – and as you may have seen – a lot of the public and media support is online. 

Integrity Icon raises the profile of exemplary civil servants who work with integrity and impact. But as an organisation premised on accountability, integrity is also central to our work and processes. In a digital age, this is challenging in the face of the rise of fake news and disinformation. When we launched, our media exposure was taken at face value and journalists and their work formed an important part of our internal vetting procedures. But the era of fake news has put some of this to the test. Other digital menaces exist too, like the consideration of online voting trends and how the power of personality plays out on social media. We’ve experimented with live results of Integrity Icon votes, for instance, which is good for the process integrity but not necessarily good when you’re trying to measure people on their work and not their image. All in all, in keeping the process transparent, we’ve had to guard against our campaign for honesty and integrity becoming a digital popularity contest.

In a more sinister turn, we’ve also had to guard against the pitfalls of running a naming and faming campaign in the countries we choose to work in, where shifting norms and changing systems are needed. These are often places where this work comes under pressure. In Pakistan this year, we’ve grappled with the spectre of fake news specifically, in the wake of anonymous claims against one of our Icons. 

The Lab’s vetting process for Integrity Icon is thorough. Our country teams each have dedicated programming staff who work on the campaign annually. They begin the vetting process with the help of independent researchers who work with the Icons’ employers and communities to gather verified information on their personal and career track-records. This often includes secondary sources like news clippings and employment records from government departments.

In all our campaigns, large numbers of public nominations are whittled down to a top 30 list before an independent jury comprised of respected individuals such as retired judges, religious leaders and former civil servants, select the top five. A second vetting process is then carried out through which the teams collect stories about the candidates, drawing on the recollections of friends, neighbors, work colleagues and managers. This is followed by the documentary filming process where the Icons share their stories, along with their nominators, managers and members of the public wherever possible.

In the spirit of accountability, we’ll admit that it’s become harder to ensure a watertight process. We’ve been confronted with allegations about people we have vetted securely and we are duty bound by our internal processes to investigate these allegations. 

But if the validity of “official” media or government reports as evidence cannot be established, what’s the next step in terms of verification? How do we upskill our teams and consistently improve our data? Who do we partner with to do this? Our responsibilities as an agile and accountable organization demand that we do this, and more, but resources are also a constraint.

We’re currently reviewing our vetting procedure and standardizing the data gathering processes used by our Network Labs. Fake news is easy to distribute but hard to ignore – and can shift understandings of the role of individuals in government or society, even when it is proven to be false. We need to balance our responsibilities to the campaign with an awareness of the many power plays and risks that the open information era present. 

Ultimately, our campaign processes are being iterated and improved, especially for the digital age. We’re committed to sharing these improvements along the way. We believe that Integrity Icon is the kind of campaign that belongs to everyone who participates in it. But we also value and need to protect our specific campaign aims to support the work of our Icons around the world, and the changes they’re trying to make to public service. If this means working harder on the rules of engagement, it’s a small price to pay.