Chris Stone, professor of public integrity at Oxford, describes some strategies for moving from a culture of corruption to one of integrity.
What is a new government minister to do when appointed to lead what turns out to be a thoroughly corrupted department?
A former student at Oxford University’s School of Government tells a story of how she dealt with a culture of pervasive corruption when she became minister of housing in her country. State-funded residential construction is ripe for corruption worldwide, and she found a typical scene on her arrival at the ministry. Corruption in contracting and corruption in the ministry’s own hiring and promotion had all become so widespread that little high-quality housing was being built where it was needed, and the ministry itself was barely capable of performing anything useful.
Some new ministers are tempted to call in the police, vowing to prosecute anyone found to have been corrupt. Others, impatient with the judicial process, decide to “clean house,” dismissing everyone so they can rebuild the institution from scratch. Still others prefer to announce that “a new day has dawned,” that whatever anyone did in the past will stay in the past, but from this day forward there will be zero tolerance for any corruption.
It’s a familiar dilemma for anyone who has attempted to turn around a corrupt government department anywhere, from the ministry of housing to the military, from the state-owned electric utility to the traffic police.
In this case, the housing minister soon discovered that much of the corruption was controlled by her head of administration, who had been cultivating opportunities for corruption throughout the ministry for decades. While ministers had come and gone, he had built a network of loyalists throughout the ministry and had established backdoor paths to government contracts sufficiently inflated to profit both the companies and officials.
The new minister quickly concluded that any turnaround would require removing this captain of corruption. She gathered evidence of his corruption in a recent initiative where none of the promised housing had been delivered. Less than four months into the job, she dismissed him and referred the case to prosecutors.
The press loved it, but the sense of accomplishment soon proved to be a “sugar high”: a surge of good feeling that dissipates quickly. The criminal case stalled with the prosecutors and the head of administration appealed his dismissal. A year later, the employment tribunal sent a notice ordering the minister to reinstate him. His triumph threatened the entire turnaround. Had she been wrong to move against him so quickly?
Reward the forms of integrity you want to promote rather than displaying intolerance for every minor act of corruption. This is how you build a culture of integrity that can last.
At Oxford’s School of Government, we use cases like this one to train a new generation of public leaders. It is not enough that they maintain their own integrity; they need the strategic skills to dislodge the pervasive corruption they inherit. In three decades of work helping officials turn around cultures of corruption — from urban police departments in the U.S. to citizen services in Ukraine and state-owned enterprises in South Africa — I have found that each context needs to be understood on its own terms, then strategies deployed that simultaneously attack the specific culture that has enabled corruption while building lasting bulwarks against the return of corruption when the turnaround is complete.
Let’s return to those three strategies that new ministers usually consider: prosecute the culpable, clean house, or promise zero tolerance from this day forward. Each has proponents, but each usually fails. Here’s why.
Prosecutions for corruption, especially grand corruption, are difficult to bring and even harder to win. The investigations require technical analysis of opaque financial statements and complex transactions, as well as digital forensic analysis of terabytes of data. Moreover, the targets often hire top international lawyers with more experience than the state prosecutors, and the judicial institutions themselves may be compromised by corruption. Mounting more than a few such prosecutions is impossible for most governments, and even these will typically take years to move through the courts.
Cleaning house is not permitted under most civil service regimes, and even when it is successful it can create bigger problems in short order. Think of the blowback from Paul Bremer’s policy of de-Baathification following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when cleaning house in the Iraq government created opposition militias and, by some accounts, the Islamic State group. More positively, Mikheil Saakashvili is credited with turning around the traffic police in Georgia when he became president by dismissing the entire force and recruiting new officers. The legend, however, may be just that, for it did not succeed when replicated in Kyiv.
Proclaiming zero tolerance “from this day forward” has the same drawback as all zero tolerance policies: you have abandoned the discretion that is one of your most important tools. Inevitably, cases arise that common sense suggests should merit exceptions. Shakespeare’s play about justice, Measure for Measure, is an extended argument against zero tolerance policies, reminding us how they trap their authors while turning the public against the most well-intentioned anti-corruption campaigns.
So, asking again, what is a new minister to do? While each of these policies usually fails on its own, combining some of all three — tailored to the particular context — can work wonders. There is wisdom in all three policies, but the benefits are lost when the strategies are taken too far.
Instead of prosecuting everyone, consider a wider range of accountability for a narrower group of the chief villains. Whether through a few careful prosecutions, removal from office, or some form of disbarment, there should be some form of accountability for the worst past corruption in any turnaround strategy. If the ringleaders are not held accountable, you won’t build support for the hard work of the turnaround.
Don’t dismiss everyone, but certainly keep an eye on them. Systems of surveillance and transparency can help with this, giving those tempted to continue in corrupt practices a ready excuse (and incentive) to desist.
And third, as you look ahead, reward the forms of integrity you want to promote rather than displaying intolerance for every minor act of corruption. This is how you build a culture of integrity that can last.
In my experience, this last element is the most important and most often neglected. A wide array of integrity rituals can be created within any institution, such as the way you explain your decisions on internal promotions. New leaders are often tempted to recruit key positions from outside; but promoting insiders known to have maintained their integrity may be your most powerful turnaround tool.
A successful turnaround strategy operates on all three of those dimensions, attending to the past, present, and future.
Success also requires partners. Officials need help from universities, think tanks, and other nongovernmental organizations to learn these lessons rather than improvising in ignorance. They need opportunities to exchange experience with successful practitioners. And they need independent journalists steeped in the issues. All of those rely on strategic philanthropists.
The minister of housing with whom we began our story, having quickly dismissed her corrupt administrator, did not let his successful appeal stand. Before her appointment, she had built her own confidence through years leading a nongovernmental organization, and she knew the value of allies. As soon as she received the notice of the administrator’s reinstatement, she shared it with a journalist who, with others, quickly portrayed the decision as a national scandal. Surprised by the wide publicity, the appellate tribunal reversed itself and confirmed his dismissal. Without a tacit partnership with journalists, the minister’s best strategies might have come to nothing.
This year, Oxford University launched the Chandler Sessions on Integrity and Corruption, an inaugural three-year program convening senior anti-corruption officials from countries worldwide. The purpose of the Sessions is to develop and test a new generation of strategies to strengthen public integrity and counter entrenched corruption.
While anti-corruption reformers face significant challenges, their efforts will be accelerated by the opportunity to learn from past lessons and new approaches, while gaining inspiration, insight, and camaraderie from peers in other countries. Rather than taking on ambitious anti-corruption efforts alone, government reformers will benefit from the opportunity to exchange models and ideas with global anti-corruption experts, practitioners, and each other in order to create more effective change in their home countries.
The Sessions will convene a core group of 15 senior officials, all recognized as effective and innovative leaders of anti-corruption institutions. Together with a small group of faculty experts and journalists, the officials participating in the Sessions will survey the field, debate the priorities for innovation, and develop and test a set of new strategies. At a time when public concern over government corruption is reaching fever pitch and official efforts to combat corruption can be frustratingly ineffective, governments need new ways to address corruption and build stronger foundations for prosperity.
Participants include the national director of public prosecutions of South Africa, the minister for Financial and Administrative Control of Tunisia, the head of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission of Nigeria, and the auditor general of Nepal, among others.
Christopher Stone, the chair of the Sessions, notes: “The fight against corruption will never be easy or straightforward. But we can succeed more often if we take the time to learn from the experiences of others and use those lessons to build practical strategies for both the short and the long term — strategies that anticipate the strength of the opposition reformers will face, and that guide their actions on many fronts at once.”