The Corruption box and the importance of high-integrity institutions

By Adam Hunt
TINZ Director

My thanks to Jerry Ratcliffe or Mark Lowenthal who mentioned the model below during a course I attended. I’ve recreated it from memory and I can’t find a reference, but apart from that it’s perfect. Mistakes are entirely my own and I apologise to whoever came up with the real version of this, as it will be far more thoroughly researched and argued.

Transparency International New Zealand does not carry out individual investigations. It focuses its attention on systems and the institutions that manage them. We spend our time looking for systemic gaps that need to be fixed and then advocating for change. This does not mean that a specific event cannot influence direction, but often this is a policy change rather than an individual case. For example, we continue to use the revolution in anti-money laundering laws as a vehicle to focus attention on corruption, and are drawing attention to the government's flaccid attempt at tackling the influence of lobby groups.

Theories of corruption are useful for targeting responses. Various tactical models have been proposed for why corruption happens. They tend to fall into (roughly) two areas:

  • The ‘oiling the wheels’ argument, that bribes are just a way to navigate a bureaucracy (called functionalism). These read more as a search for excuses for corrupt behaviours than actual arguments.
  • Rational choice arguments: it just makes (economic) sense. These tend to fall down when the economic system is viewed as a whole. Corrupt systems are less economically efficient, so this rationalism only holds up at an individual level, unless you are a particularly big fish in the pond.

Both of these concepts are trying to answer the age-old question: “why do people do bad things?” The traditional answer was, “because, {insert mythical evil deity}”: in essence “because that person / class of people are innately evil / weak willed” etc. Clearly complete nonsense, but easily understood.

In reality much of the time it is because our socio-economic system has made “them” see their bad choice as being the only rational option - a classic example of which is the concept of shareholder primacy (something we are fortunate is not law in New Zealand).

One way of thinking about this area employs the box approach which will be familiar to anyone who has a business qualification. On the vertical axis let’s have a scale representing the individual. The top of the axis represents a personal propensity to behave ethically. This encompasses most people (study after study shows that most of us are born with a sense of fairness). On the horizontal axis let’s represent the  degree of corruption in the system in which the individual operates. 

I’ve made up names for the four quadrants and thought about what they might mean. 

Virtuous reinforcement. You are not corrupt, and neither is the system. What a beautiful place to be. You can behave in a way that you find comfortable. Life is simple, because nobody is going to push you out of your zone by demanding a bribe as you glide through life. Bureaucratic irrationality will still drive you up the wall, but at least you know it’s not corruption, just stupidity. This is pretty much life in New Zealand.

Spiral of doom. Oddly, this is also relatively comfortable much of the time. The bureaucracy is easy to deal with as long as you have a bit of cash. You will not be shunned by your friends if you get caught paying a bribe. Things may get more difficult if you are on the receiving end: that innate sense of fair play means others will want their share, and that can get unpleasant, especially as there is nowhere to complain. If something does go wrong it will come down to a power play, and (statistically) you will probably be on the losing side. In the meantime your country will probably remain poor, levels of freedom will be low and there is unlikely to be much of a social safety net. 

Pressure to bend. This is not a happy place. Every day is torture. You do not like corruption but there is no alternative. The endemic unfairness eats away, but chances are you are not in a position to do anything except try to escape to somewhere less corrupt. If you make it to a less corrupt system, you will run into inexplicable rules that you will possibly misinterpret as corruption, when in reality they are probably just the mechanisms put in place to reduce the risk of corruption. .

Pressure to influence. When those with antisocial personality disorder live in a society with low levels of corruption they probably do not find it as grating as the pressure to bend, because they do not care what others think of them - in their minds those people are just losers. Often they will seek positions of power because they feel the need to influence the system to match their own worldview. This is particularly dangerous when combined with narcissism. But overall they will live in a context that continually punishes their corrupt tendencies, and will spend their lives trying to hide or normalise their crimes.

This model illustrates why the system is more important than the individual. A clean system will pressure individuals to behave, whereas corrupt individuals subject to proper controls and accountability will struggle to fight our innate sense of fair play.

You may have also noticed my pointed remarks about bureaucratic incompetence. It is no coincidence that government agencies seen as most fair and efficient are also the most trusted. Successful public agencies recognise this and make it a fundamental part of their strategy for integrity. It means holding leaders accountable not just for behaving well but striving for excellence in service delivery.

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