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Confronting the Threat of Bribery: A Strategic Approach

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard M. Jacobs
March 3, 2020

Over the past three years, nearly 25% of business enterprises have reported incidents of bribery. These reports, validated by the research, indicate that bribery is ubiquitous, not discriminating among organization type.

What public administrators need to know

Congress criminalized bribery in 1962 when it passed 18 USC Section 201, specifying two offenses that constitute the crime:

  • The first offense: Giving or accepting of anything of value to or by a public official, if the thing is given, “With intent to influence,” an official act, or if it is received by the official, “In return for being influenced.” This causally direct connection—for example, a, “Quid pro quo,”—constitutes the criminal act of bribery regardless of whether it results in the receipt of an unearned reward. A conviction is punishable for up to a 15-year sentence.
  • The second offense: Accepting the same thing of value, if, “For or because of,” any official act, prohibits anyone from giving any such thing for such a reason. This is also bribery but involves, “Gratuities. ” This causally less-direct connection—an, “After the fact,” gift given as, “Thanks,” for an act but not in exchange for it or with a nonspecific intent to, “Curry favor,” with the public official to whom it was given—constitutes the criminal act of gratuity for which a conviction is punishable for a maximum 2-year sentenc

Both offenses evidence corruption.

What public administrators need to do

Relevant laws and regulations concerning bribery are stricter for public than for private organizations. What may be acceptable for the latter—“Reasonable corporate hospitality,” for example—may not be allowable for the former.

To assist in preventing, detecting, and addressing bribery, the literature suggests that public administrators implement a strategy consisting of four objectives:

  1. Formulate and implement (or update) an anti-bribery policy. This policy, as it concerns the organization and all employees, must reinforce the intention and obligation that everyone act ethically in all of their conduct. In particular, the policy must communicate that bribery in all forms is impermissible for every member of the organization if only because bribery can harm the organization’s reputation for integrity.
  1. “From the top,” set the right tone. What a public administrator espouses about bribery must define what one actually does about bribery. This, “Model II,” behavior (from research by Argyris & Schön conducted in 1974) provides subordinates a touchstone not only concerning how they must comply with the organization’s anti-bribery policy but also reinforcing the organization’s anti-bribery ethos by consenting to its values and evidencing both in their conduct.
  1. Provide anti-bribery notification to third-party business associates. After conducting due diligence, public administrators should require all third parties to agree in writing to remain in full compliance with all relevant anti-bribery laws in addition to the organization’s anti-bribery policy in all of their dealings with the organization and its employees.

These objectives communicate how employees and third-party business associates must conduct themselves to avoid incidents of bribery. Yet, as Rohr argued decades ago, this, “Low road,” approach—emphasizing for the most part conduct that’s proscribed—is itself insufficient.

More substantively, the anti-bribery policy must also identify how bribery violates the organization’s ethos and values.

  1. Provide employees continuous ethics training to supplement the policy. Bribery training—especially how to spot the six red flags associated with bribery—will reinforce the policy by communicating to employees their role in preventing bribery while also strengthening the organization’s culture and values. For example, the Asian Development Bank provides employees training to assess the situation, to maintain presence of mind, to report incidents to appropriate authority immediately with a full accounting of what transpired, when declining a bribe is not an option, to make no promises and to provide necessary documentation.

This, “High road,” approach specifies how employees and third-party business associates must conduct themselves as well as why they must do so: Never to place into jeopardy the organization’s culture, values and reputation.

The administrative objective: Compliance and consent

ASPA’s Code of Ethics doesn’t directly address bribery, stating only that public administrators demonstrate personal integrity as they, “Guard against using public position for personal gain or to advance personal or private interests.”

With nearly 25% of businesses reporting incidences of bribery, the Code’s principle and its associated practice remind public administrators that preventing, detecting and addressing bribery requires formulating or updating their organization’s anti-bribery policy to consist of four objectives. The strategy emphasize both a, “Low road,” and, “High road,” approach—what the organization’s culture and values requires of all members as well as all third-party business associates.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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