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When Is It Really Corruption?

We need to do better at distinguishing misconduct and maladministration from truly illegal behavior.

By Adam Graycar

Among the public, there is a widespread view that all in politics and government are corrupt. But as ever in politics and government, there are few blacks or whites; most things fall in between. There is a great danger to our democracy if we label as corrupt activities those that involve normal decision-making and operations matters that might not be to the liking of ideological or partisan opponents.

A current case involves a public-university president who is being investigated for alleged misuse of his credit card and for some appointments that may not have complied with all the processes required. This person runs a billion-dollar enterprise; he needs to be nimble with strategic decisions. His opponents want him to eat as cheaply as possible, stay in fleapits and appoint their cronies. To use a corruption allegation to sort out these managerial issues is an abuse. There are other managerial remedies.

The landscape of public-service delivery often does not distinguish among corruption, misconduct and maladministration. Where there is fraud and embezzlement, there is a clear criminal case to be made. Where there is laziness, poor service or even bullying and harassment, there are managerial and administrative remedies. The real problem comes in maladministration or inefficiency, where there is not enough bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

Maladministration, misconduct and corruption often morph into each other, and there are no clear boundaries. It is important to see the activities for what they are and for the different kinds of harms they might do to the community.

A person in public service gets a salary, and that should be the only reward for that public service. There should be no favors for a bit extra, no payments for decisions, no persuasions to do things in certain ways for extra rewards. It should be fairly clear when officials do wrong things, when they fail to do something they should do, or when they do something permissible but purposely do it in an improper manner. This is the essence of corruption: breaching trust and improperly trading on that entrusted authority.

It is important to distinguish doing one’s job from manipulating the system. When an official is bought a cup of coffee or a modest lunch that in itself is not corruption. It is corruption, however, when that exchange leads to a change of a decision or an outcome that is bought. Guarding against allegations of corruption requires a high level of transparency: There should be no secrecy about things that might be perceived by others as benefits but perceived by the official as the nuts and bolts of doing one’s job.

The real issues at hand are larger ones: whether our democracy is being bought and whether vested interests control our legislators and officials and expect significant quid pro quos for their contributions. This is particularly vexing in the area of campaign finance. What does a campaign contribution “buy”? Is it no more than expressing support of a candidate who sees the world through a lens similar to that of the donor? If so that is consistent with our democracy. If it is a down payment on a decision that might benefit the donor and not be in the interest of the community or taxpayers, then that is a different story.

Corruption destroys good government and undermines social and economic goals and aspirations. Opening the debate on where the boundaries might be could well help us understand how to play our politics with more integrity and less toxicity.

Reprinted with permission of GOVERNING, copyright @ 2015. http://www.governing.com/

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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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