The Quality of Government and Public Administration

In 1999, Evans and Rauch showed a strong association between government effectiveness (quality of government)—particularly the presence of a Weberian-like bureaucracy, selected and promoted on merit alone and largely autonomous from private interests—and economic growth. In 1997 and the aftermath of the Washington Consensus controversial reforms the World Bank promoted this finding in its influential World Development Report 1997 as part of its broader paradigm on “institutional quality.” Twenty years of investment in state capacity followed, by means of foreign assistance supporting the quality of public administration as a prerequisite to development. However, most reviews found the results well under expectations. This is hardly surprising, seeing that Max Weber, credited as the first promoter of the importance of bureaucracy as both the end result and the tool of government rationalization in modern times, never took for granted the autonomy of the state apparatus from private interest. He clearly stated that the power using the apparatus is the one steering the bureaucracy itself. In fact, a review of empirical evidence shows that the quality of public administration is endogenous to the quality of government more broadly and therefore can hardly be a solution in problematic contexts. The autonomy of the state from private interest is one of the most difficult objectives to accomplish in the evolution of a state, and few states have managed in contemporary times to match the achievements of Denmark or Switzerland in the 19th century. Two countries, Estonia and Georgia, are exceptional in this regard, but their success argues for the primacy of politics rather than of administration.


Sweden is one of the countries in the world with best control of corruption, on behalf of both reduced opportunities- due to great transparency and an administration low on power discretion- and high constraints, due to high freedom of the press, numerous e-citizens and a judiciary autonomous from private interest. However, in the past decade several vulnerabilities showed, especially related to Swedish companies transacting abroad, sanctioned by American authorities enforcing Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The OECD Working Group on Bribery has since 2012 repeatedly urged Sweden to reform its own laws to ensure the investigation and prosecution of companies that bribe foreign public officials to obtain advantages in international business. Transparency of public procurement could also be increased, as it is far below European average, and some sanctions on conflict of interest introduced.

New Book: Corruption, Contention, and Reform: The Power of Deep Democratisation

In his new book, Colgate University professor and anti-corruption expert Michael Johnston argues that corruption will persist until those who have a stake in defeating it act in ways that cannot be ignored. For this to happen, citizens need to be enabled to defend their own interests, which is at the heart of the principle of “deep democratisation.” This volume is a continuation of his previous work, Syndromes of Corruption, where Johnston outlined four syndromes of corruption: influence markets, elite cartels, oligarchs and clans, and official moguls. As he argues, each syndrome requires a different reform approach.

For this new volume, Johnston analysed the following syndromes: official moguls in Egypt and Tunisia, oligarchs and clans in the Philippines, elite cartels in Argentina, and influence markets in France, Australia and the US. He focuses on recent events such as the global economic crisis and the Arab Spring to show that we can assess vulnerabilities to corruption and the effects of reforms, and use this information to develop new practices.

Professor Johnston recently took some time to answer our questions about the new publication:

1. How do you define corruption and how do you define control of corruption?

That’s the holy grail of corruption research because there’s no settled definition. The essence of it, it seems to me, is the abuse of wealth and power for personal or small group benefit. At one point, that would have been defined more strictly in the context of the lack of a private-public divide, but of course there’s corruption in societies which do have a strong private-public divide. It’s fundamentally a question of power and exploitation.

As far as successful control of corruption – we don’t really have good measures. Transparency International has done a wonderful service to anti-corruption research with the indicators that they have developed, but these indicators have also distorted the discussion somewhat. I like to look at indirect measures: public trust, political participation, etc; there are a number of micro measures. For example, how long does it take to get a passport, how easy is it to register a business? Ultimately, the issue is not so much the absence of corruption, but the progress toward accountability, and one problem that the anti-corruption movement has had, is that we’ve tended to focus on the negative, and neglect success stories.

2. This volume is a continuation of your previous work, Syndromes of Corruption. Was this second volume always planned or did it evolve organically?

That’s an interesting question, because in Syndromes of Corruption, I wrote a final chapter which looked at the concept of “deep democratisation,” by which I mean, “a continuing process of building workable rules and accountability by bringing more voices and interests into the governing process.” That ending chapter definitely made room for something later on – it was sort of like in Star Wars when Darth Vader gets away and you know that there’s got to be a sequel. I knew there was a need to further explore the concept of deep democratisation, but the actual development of the book took longer.

3.  What are your impressions of anti-corruption achievement since you wrote the first volume?

Well, I’d first like to preface that by saying that when we talk about anti-corruption activists, we’re talking about a lot of good, smart people. In some places in the world, we’re also talking about many courageous people who are taking risks. Having said that, there are unfortunately not many success stories. When we start talking about success stories, the conversation inevitably moves to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, but these are city-states. If you want to point to success stories in countries, it’s hard to find them.

If you look at the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), you find successes in places like Belgium and Japan, but they had good institutions to begin with. Ghana, Indonesia, Uruguay and South Korea are also promising. Returning to the question of measures again, one of the main problems with the CPI is that from year to year, countries tend not to move in the rankings, despite strenuous efforts.

4. You argue that corruption will continue unless those who have a stake in opposing it are able to do so in ways that cannot be ignored. Who do you identify as having a stake and could you give an example of resistance to corruption which could not be ignored?

Broadly speaking, those who have a stake in opposing it are those who lose from corruption. What I hope might come out of this book is discussion of more nuanced ways of fighting corruption, ways that enable citizens in different contexts to have input in shaping their own destiny.

If you look at several historical cases, reform is frequently motivated by some kind of self-interest and not necessarily out of a desire to serve the common good. Many reformers take it as a given that you check your self-interest at the door when you are fighting for a cause, but I don’t think that’s the case.

For example, there were a number of U.S. business interests that were closely affiliated with well-oiled political machines, such as Tammany Hall. Ultimately, however, many of these interests strayed from the machine because it had built such a political monopoly that it could no longer regard business as a partner but as a target for exploitation. These business entities pursued a number of other unsavoury agendas, but in this instance, because of their own self-interests, they pursued an anti-corruption agenda.

Even the Magna Carta arguably came about as a result of wealthy land-owners pursuing their own self-interests. There’s a certain romance to reform, but I think unfortunately that can be a trap. It’s not always a matter of civic enlightenment.

5. What would you say are promising cases? Ie, cases which have made a lot of progress? Are there any lessons to be learned from them?

To begin with, it depends on what we mean by progress. Countries which manage to fully control corruption, so that it’s an exception or countries which go from horrible to merely bad?

Having said that, I would keep an eye on Thailand – it’s still up in the air but after they introduced anti-corruption measures in the [1997] constitution things went better. I think Tunisia has potential. Mexico has struggled in many ways, but is an interesting laboratory for reform ideas. Chile is also an interesting case, but of course some progress was made under dictatorship.

6. What are some countries which you would identify as problematic which may not appear so based on indicators?

I would actually say that liberal democracies such as the US, France, Japan, Germany are problematic for reasons which are not evident from looking at indicators. We get good Transparency International [Corruption Perception Index] scores, and good World Bank [Worldwide Governance Indicators] scores, but at the same time, have we really controlled corruption or have we totally handed the reins to the wealthy to the extent that they don’t need to bribe anyone anymore?

I discuss this in Chapter 7 of the book. The kind of corruption in liberal democracies is particularly dangerous, because it has a way of spreading through the global system. If you’re talking about exploitation of Nigeria, it’s isolated. U.S. or French involvement in arms trading has a global impact. That sort of corruption often consists of desirable corruption, but sometimes it pushes the boundary (I would argue, for example, in the area of campaign contributions, it has). Lobbying is a right in the US, but has it crossed the line? International business is important, but has it reached the point where people aren’t accountable anywhere? Are wealthy interests taking over? This is why I would say any comparative corruption scheme must include the North and the West.

7. What are your thoughts on top-down versus bottom-up anti-corruption reforms?

I think we need both working in synergy. In the Philippines, one of the big issues is, how do you close the loop between citizens and government? People may not take their problems directly to government offices, but to fixers [third party operators who help complete bureaucratic processes for a fee]? Vote-buying is rampant, etc. The risk is that the country falls into what Richard Rose refers to as the “expectations trap”. Citizens don’t expect much of government, and vice versa. One of the recommendations in this situation is to start benchmarking government services.  NGOs exist, but are well outside the agencies they monitor. Many agencies are already gathering data which would work well in this process, but they might lack the capacity to analyse it properly.

China for example has a huge amount of data on this – and there’s wide variation in the benchmarks. How long does it take to register a business? If it varies widely – or if delays are longer, there’s perhaps more risk of corruption.

8. What are your thoughts on measures of corruption?

I think what’s currently missing is a way to assess integrity, assess citizen satisfaction. Efficiency does NOT equal integrity. A great example of this, which I discuss in the book, is a project from two of my students which evolved into an organisation called Shudify. They conducted exit surveys for people leaving government offices in Bangalore, and in this way they were able to map out where in the city people could expect good service.

9. Any other thoughts to add?

Well, on the topic of the book, I hope people will read and be critical. On the four syndromes, hopefully someday there will be more and maybe only 2 of them will be ones I thought of, and that’s ok. I hope people would view corruption in a myriad of contexts, rather than just a black or white issue.

Michael Johnston is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Colgate University and serves on the advisory board of ERCAS and of the ANTICORRP project. His latest book, Corruption, Contention, and Reform: The Power of Deep Democratization was recently published by Cambridge University Press.