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Improving the Corruption Perception Index Rank for United States

This article is part of a Special
in the November/December 2010 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor
Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on
the print issue. See the Related Articles box for links to read more from the Special Section.

Alexandru V. Roman

In the recently released 2010, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which measures the perception of corruption in the public sector, the United States received a score of 7.1 (ranking the United States 22nd among 178 surveyed countries). This is the lowest ranking for United States since the index’s inception in 1995. This represents a decrease from a score of 7.5 (ranked 19th) in 2009 and a 7.7 score (ranked 16th) in 2000. Iceland, Hong Kong, Chile, Barbados and Qatar all received higher scores. While CPI’s accuracy and methods could be debated, it is clear, that at least trend-wise, the public sector in United States, despite transparency initiatives, is losing the confidence of citizens by raising concerns of integrity.

The loss of confidence is as much a result of the economic downturn as of the public sector’s inability to convince that it can effectively contain the issue. With public servants and public administration academics stuck somewhere in between citizen dissatisfaction and promise-filled electoral speeches, it is more important than ever that citizens trust the integrity of public servants.

The visibility and publicness of public servants will guarantee, fairly or not, that they will have to carry a great part of the blame for perceived failures. Doing more with less is an imperative that the citizens believe is naturally and morally theirs. Thus, there is little room for vagueness in defining critical issues. Flexible and vague definitions are of little administrative use. In order to improve public perception, public servants would need a practical and administratively useful definition of corruption.

An administratively useful definition of corruption, that is currently not present, would help clarify the reality of the role of financial considerations as a leading motive behind corrupt acts; it would also allow public servants to distinguish corrupt acts from fraudulent acts or unethical behavior. Such a definition would assist public servants delineating public corruption through emphasis on constitutional expectations (differently from private sector corruption); and it will also clarify the role third party interests play in deeming an act as being corrupt or not.

Paradoxically, increased academic attention to corruption in the last few decades only added to the illusiveness associated with defining corruption. The lack of consensus in regards to what represents a corrupt act leads to definitions that are very broad and at times tailored to the philosophy of the field that defines it. Corruption is almost a you’ll-know-when-you’ll-see-it type of issue. It is usually defined as the use of public power for private gains, which alludes to material gains. The International Anti-Corruption and Good Governance Act of 2000, set its purpose to help establish good governance by fighting corruption. The indirect intriguing assumptions of the Act seemed to be that corruption only happens somewhere else, in the developing world, and that it is not necessary to define corruption or good governance, as it is self-evident. However, this is far from being so.

Jain Arvind in her 2001, “Corruption: A Review” article from Journal of Economic Surveys emphasizes that a great difficulty associated with solving the corruption dilemma is defining it. Field-related beliefs, assumptions and decisions in the process of defining the concept, congruently lead to what exactly is being studied and what is being suggested as a solution. However, these beliefs might not necessarily be practical in administrative terms, making it difficult to discuss any type of a realistic solution.

Deriving from rationality assumptions, it is believed that for an act to be deemed corrupt there should be a clear material interest involved. This assumption needs to be dramatically revised. Gjalt de Graaf and L.W. J.C (Leo) Huberst in their article published in Public Administration Review, entitled “Portraying the Nature of Corruption Using and Explorative Case Study Design” from 2008, conclude that corruption is a slippery slope process within enduring relationships. They also conclude that many corrupt acts have been motivated by other than financial factors–such as status concerns, friendship and love. These determinations become considerable, if it is also noted that the Dutch researchers find that most of the corrupt public officials, whose cases they studied, were charismatic individuals, who were highly respected for being able to get things done. Joris Lammers, Diederik A. Stapel and Adam D. Galinsky in their 2010 article “Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior” from the Psychological Science, delineate a clear link between power entitlement and hypocritical behavior. These results have significant implications in constructing a definition as well as solutions, from the perspective of causal mechanisms.

Thus, while there are a lot of things that the public sector can learn from the private sector, dealing with corruption should not be one of them. Some questionable practices and informal arrangements are ruled as laudable competitive strategies in the private sector. However, on the background of public servants aspiring to be, what Anthony M. Bertelli and Laurence E. Lynn Jr. in their 2006 book under the same name, refer to as “Madison’s Managers,” these webbings that might lead to efficiency in the private sector are inappropriate within the public sector’s constitutional duties. Some of the leniency permitted in the private sector should not be accepted within the public sphere. This supports the belief that public corruption should be defined differently from corruption in the private sector and from fraud and unethical behavior. Attempting to put the three under one umbrella would complicate the solution generating process more than it already is.

Due to the inflationary and intricate nature of corruption, it is crucial that public sector servants at all levels are aware, able to recognize and have the practical administrative skills and tools in place to deal with corruption. Public servants derive little operational use from directional provisions based on self-evident concepts and a this-does-not-happen-to-us type of thinking. A clear and useful definition of corruption, or any other fashionable directive for that matter, could generate significant administrative gains.

At the moment, it might appear that capturing a practical definition of corruption is one of the least worries of public servants and public administration theory. After all, there are so many more pressing concerns than defining corruption. This is, however, a dangerous perspective to take. The solution to this complex issue need not be complicated in its own right. Simple Jersey barriers have helped prevent port running by drug traffickers.

But it all starts with a usable definition. Such a definition would allow us to exploit the effectiveness in the long run of education as a policy tool. Adamantly defining the issues in what-best-fits my research or campaign manner is not helping anyone. On many occasions preemptive mechanisms to keep a problem in check are much less costly and painful than dealing with the issues once it gets out of hand. Defining corruption for public servants in a clear and useful way is an effective first step towards improving the corruption perception index ranking.

Alexandru V. Roman is a full time doctorate student in public administration at Florida Atlantic University. He holds a MBA and a M.A. in Economics from SUNY IT and SUNY at Albany, respectively. Email: [email protected].

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