"Ideas We Should Steal" is a regular feature of the Philadelphia Citizen, which will be holding an Ideas We Should Steal Festival on Nov. 30.

A few months ago, Ralph DiPietro, deputy commissioner for Licenses and Inspections, was awarded  the Joan Markham Award for Integrity to celebrate his “strong commitment to integrity, diligence, and transparency on behalf of the City of Philadelphia.” Inspector General Amy Kurland said DiPietro has helped to shift the culture of the scandal-plagued L&I, from one of rampant corruption to one in which cases of bad actors are few and far between. In return, DiPietro, L&I’s integrity officer, got $1,000, a certificate, a photo on a wall, and a press release announcing his victory.
Perhaps you’ve heard of him? I thought not.
If DiPietro happened to live in Nepal or six other developing countries, he might be a national hero, recognized on the street the way we recognize disgraced elected officials like Chaka Fattah, and Seth Williams, and Kathleen Kane, the kind of celebrity we most need in the world. He could be an Integrity Idol.
A project of the Washington-based nonprofit Accountability Lab, Integrity Idol is an annual contest to find and celebrate the best, most honest, most helpful public servants in countries that are often rife with corruption. It operates on a simple premise that could be powerful enough to change the world: What if instead of just putting corrupt officials behind bars, we put honest ones on TV?
The idea for Integrity Idol came to Accountability Lab founder and executive director Blair Glencorse in 2014, when he was with his team in Nepal watching that country’s version of American Idol and talking about how to create a popular movement around the notion of reform. Someone suggested, half-jokingly, Integrity Idol. 
Glencorse later learned that corruption around the world costs around $1 trillion a year, and causes around 3.6 million deaths. He started Accountability Lab to combat those horrifying statistics. “The number-one cause of instability is corruption,” he says. “Unless you can form a solid relationship between officials and citizens, you won’t get anywhere. And it has to be a ground-up approach. Top-down hasn’t worked.”
They launched the program in Nepal, and that first year got 300 nominations. A well-respected panel whittled down to five finalists, whom they filmed and interviewed to air on TV and radio all over the country. Through an SMS voting system, tens of thousands of Nepali picked the winner: Gyan Mani, a chief district officer in a poor region of the country, who routed out corruption in (among other places) the local schools. 

Six other countries now have their own Integrity Idol: Liberia, South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mali, and Sri Lanka. The Idols have become celebrities whom people want to meet and emulate. They have launched a Meet the Idols campaign, sending winners and nominees into schools and universities to spread the idea of ethical behavior in all professions and advocate and educate around issues, like health-care reform and education.  

In some countries, Glencorse says, Idols are now working with civil-service training programs to develop curricula and mentor new public servants on doing their jobs with integrity. And, they have begun hosting Integrity Summits in each country, bringing together winners and nominees to work together on projects.
Glencorse says he is starting to think about how to launch Integrity Idol in the United States, starting with one city at a time. Perhaps we could suggest Philadelphia — the birthplace of America — as the first city to bring back integrity?
We certainly need it. Without it, we risk more of what we’ve seen: an apathy bred from the sinking feeling that the people we entrust with our public good are not trustworthy. That apathy leads to the appalling lack of participation in our public life. It causes low voter turnout, a shrug when school buildings are falling down around our children, and a silence when City Council makes decisions, in front of a virtually empty chamber, that affect us all. It is the death knell of democracy. 

The city’s Award for Integrity is a start, but we need to do more to make the DiPietros among us into the civic heroes that they are, to create what Glencorse calls a “virtuous circle of reform” — until everyone is like DiPietro.
We’ll start: Do you know any public officials who deserve to be idolized for their integrity? Let us know and we’ll spread the word.


Roxanne Patel Shepelavy is executive editor of the Philadelphia Citizen, where a version of this piece originally appeared.