Will the current crisis enable better governance, or hinder it?

The forecast of good governance on this page, the first one ever of its kind (hence it should be seen as work in progress), has come out at the very beginnings of an unprecedented destabilizing crisis for this century. It is fair to ask oneself therefore how the prognoses here will be affected.

Many positive things exist in crises such as the current one. Among others, we can count more global solidarity, more understanding of inequities of globalization and structural inequalities, and more acknowledgment of insufficient progress in recent years in delivering equal treatment and opportunity. Ethical universalism is an unfinished business even in the most advanced democracies, and there is more awareness of that than before. However, violence and anarchy are on the rise mostly in free societies, which have done the most to enable ethical universalism, and where democratic avenues to solve grievances do exist. Partisanship has crossed any limits of acceptable behavior and has become really problematic sectarianism. The center is squeezed, and civilization and civility with it.

What our science tells us is that political instability does not breed good governance, however: it’s not merit which triumphs when violence is on the rise.

It is perhaps more likely that Mr. Trump will lose elections: however, the reform-minded President Macron may also go, too, as it showed in local elections this year, and the main profiteer is the right-wing party of Madame Le Pen. The Chinese whistleblowers of the Coronavirus have not been promoted to top party hierarchy in the ministry of health: instead, they are dead and China represses Hong Kong freedom fighters with little hindrance from the international community. This is not surprising, as on some days it seems that the countries where democracy has been born and evolved ever since, even if not to perfection- US and UK- are more problematic than Russia, China, Turkey and North Korea. In the latter countries, where there is no consultation at all, nobody storms public buildings and statues whose fate should be decided by all inhabitants of a city after debate, not just angry groups. The very essential feature enabling such behavior in democratic countries- freedom and the consequent lack of fear from repression- is taken for granted increasingly. In previous times when this happened, the rights of citizenry suffered, because the absence of violence of every kind is indispensable for liberal democracies to be able to ensure rights. Populists will have an easier time rallying people around law and order if equality promoters equally promote violence and unilateralism. The most productive approach to fighting corruption as a main curtailer of individual rights might suffer in such a context.

The first amendment to the forecast is that the more political violence grows, the less positive predictions come true and more countries come under threat of losing what they have acquired, the good governance fundamentals: freedom of thought, equality before the law and the capacity to mediate between different interests through debate and limited terms popularly elected office.

The second amendment refers to the important role of technology. While in recent years we have seen intense mobilization against social media because it enables the worst social groups’ instincts- groupthink, mobbing, selective exposure, scapegoating, trolling and harassment- our research group has continued to defend it as a force for good. Social media enable people to monitor their government, to rally and protest, and such collective action is indispensable for good governance. Research has shown, however, that social media algorithms promote aggressivity online because it sells more advertising, and groups such as the Yellow Vest are profiting from it. While we are very proud to live in an era on unprecedented technological development we see daily that this does little to deter people from endorsing identity politics, and the resulting collectivism and intergroup conflict. None of these help ethical universalism, a society where everybody is treated fairly and equally, with no difference due to particular characteristics of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other difference. Technology helps only if it remains a force for enlightenment- hence our component of public integrity index, enlightened citizens, those endowed with Internet household connections and associated with others through social media. We still have a strong association between their numbers and the quality of governance. But will this correlation hold if trolls and mobs become stronger than ethical universalism promoters on the Internet? In our forecast we have seen progress over the last ten years on both sides- governments have become more digital, and citizens have become better at participating. This development has resulted in mostly incremental progress so far- indeed, there is no substantial case based on digital progress alone, not even Estonia, although the progress of cases like Brazil or North Macedonia is based in part on digitalization. While we are still believers in what technology can do for good governance and solving collective action problems, technology has to stay a force for civilization and dialogue if it is to fulfill its potential.

So far, threats for good governance overshadow opportunities from the current crisis. But this Is not over and the jury is out still.

United States

United States is the best model of a low red tape, low transaction costs government, with wide ranging transparency covering from public expenditures to private property. This reduces opportunities for corruption. Public accountability arrangements vary from federal to state level and across states, and so does corruption, but both legal and normative constraints are generally high. Media and civil society are very active in monitoring government favoritism, especially legal favoritism and political corruption. US has also been the first country in the world to have introduced legislation forbidding bribing abroad, and remains the most active enforcer of public integrity internationally. There is growing concern that both internally and externally the promotion of public integrity will backslide under the current presidency.

Multi-Nationals and Corruption Systems: The Case of Siemens

Scholars tend to agree and evidence has shown that domestic businesses adapt to the local type of corruption, but little is known whether large multinational corporations also adapt to the local forms of corruption. Institutionalist theories of corruption and of international political economy would suggest that this would be the case, but the hypothesis has not, to our knowledge, been systematically tested. This paper, drawing on investigative materials about the activities of one such multinational, the German corporation Siemens AG, examines how it used corruption and bribery to advance its business around the world. We extrapolate from the logic of four “syndromes of corruption”, as Michael Johnston terms them, to develop specific hypotheses about the kind of behavior multinational corporations would be expected to exhibit when doing business in each of the four kinds of syndromes. We examine and compare Siemens’ activities in the United States, Italy, Russia and China. We find that Siemens did adapt to the local corruption form (or “syndrome”) and used, among others, different types of intermediaries to approach the local elites. The evidence from these case studies supports the institutionalist argument that multinationals distinguish between corrupt environments and further supports the argument that there exist different types, or syndromes, of corruption.

Multi-Nationals and Corruption Systems: The Case of Siemens

Scholars tend to agree and evidence has shown that domestic businesses adapt to the local type of corruption, but little is known whether large multinational corporations also adapt to the local forms of corruption. Institutionalist theories of corruption and of international political economy would suggest that this would be the case, but the hypothesis has not, to our knowledge, been systematically tested. This paper, drawing on investigative materials about the activities of one such multinational, the German corporation Siemens AG, examines how it used corruption and bribery to advance its business around the world. We extrapolate from the logic of four “syndromes of corruption”, as Michael Johnston terms them, to develop specific hypotheses about the kind of behavior multinational corporations would be expected to exhibit when doing business in each of the four kinds of syndromes. We examine and compare Siemens’ activities in the United States, Italy, Russia and China. We find that Siemens did adapt to the local corruption form (or “syndrome”) and used, among others, different types of intermediaries to approach the local elites. The evidence from these case studies supports the institutionalist argument that multinationals distinguish between corrupt environments and further supports the argument that there exist different types, or syndromes, of corruption.

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. 

Interesting Monitoring Projects in the United States

In the past years several civil society activities to monitor the public administration have emerged in the United States. From projects to track legislation bills and political donations to election candidates, among other things, these initiatives could serve as inspiration for civil society in other countries as well.

The website POPVOX, for instance, offers a platform where voters can follow bills in Congress and check who supports and opposes specific bills and how representatives and senators vote on each bill. Users can also express their own support or opposition to a certain bill.

Another interesting project is the website OpenCongress, which allows voters to track how their representatives and senators vote in Congress and also how they are funded.

Follow the Money and OpenSecrets.org are other resources that explore trails of political finance and money influence on politics. OpenSecrets.org also keeps track on the ‘revolving door’ between Congress and the private sector, showing where members of Congress and former staff members are employed after leaving Congress.

For additional information read “The 7 Best Open Government Sites” on readwriteweb.com.

Most Countries Disrespect Their Own Freedom of Information Laws

A story published by the Associated Press (AP) last week revealed that most countries with Freedom of Access to Information laws do not follow them properly. In a test with over 100 countries with such legislation, more than half failed to provide the requested information and only 14 disclosed the data within the legal deadline.

The study was the first worldwide attempt to verify to what extent these laws are being effectively implemented. During an entire week in January AP journalists sent requests of information about terrorism arrests and convictions to 105 countries and the European Union.

In the small group of governments that processed the requests in a timely manner are, for instance, Guatemala, which sent the documents after 10 days, and Turkey, which needed only a week to reply. Canada and the United States, on the other hand, needed more that six months to provide the information, and in the latter case part of the data was censored. More than 40 countries never acknowledged the request or refused to provide the information on the basis of national security.

The results point out to a trend of countries’ adopting this kind of legislation as a result of pressure or incentives from international organizations, however without any intention of implementing it. In some countries, such as India and Uganda, there have even been cases of political persecution against individuals who tried to make use of right-to-know laws.

Read the full article AP Impact: Right-to-know laws often ignored on hosted.ap.org. More details about the results of the study can be accessed on AP’s Facebook page. The agency is also accepting suggestions for future information requests to be made in the next parts of their Freedom of Information project. The picture shown above is credited to AP.