Anti-corruption by text message?

Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is forty years old this year. This has subsequently prompted plenty of discussion in China as to whether the mainland can learn from the ICAC’s successes.  Being realistic, any suggestion that the ICAC model can be transferred to mainland China is almost certainly wide of the mark. If Chinese officials want to seriously tackle corruption, then they are going to have come up with more innovative ideas than that.

Hong Kong’s ICAC has a formidable reputation.  A recent scandal about the inflated expenses of Timothy Tong (see here) may have caused a degree of consternation at home, but when anti-corruption agencies are discussed outside of Hong Kong, it is never long before the ‘ICAC Model’ is mentioned. The ICAC is the Rolls Royce of ACAs.  It therefore shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when questions are asked about what China can learn from the ICAC’s experience.  Given the way contemporary China works, the answer to this question is straightforward; very little.

If an ICAC-like model were to have any traction in Beijing, then China’s entire system of governance would have to be re-shaped and re-moulded. It would have to be given an independence that would place it above and (far) beyond the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). It would need to have strong leadership and ample resources. And, most importantly, it would need to be free from political interference.  With the best will in the world, any Chinese ICAC is not going to be granted these things.

Practical moves to tackle corruption in China will therefore have to begin from rather different starting points.  One such method is to genuinely empower citizens to report on any incidences of corruption that they’ve experienced. All anti-corruption campaigns claim to want to empower citizens, but very few do so in anything more than a superficial way. One approach that might have mileage in China, however, can be found in Lahore, Pakistan.  Corruption in land transactions in particular reached such proportions in the capital of Pakistani Punjab that the Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, introduced a system (the ‘Citizen Feedback Model’) that would enable citizens to report back on corrupt transactions. The Lahore authorities created a private organisation to send everyone who had dealings with local government offices a so-called ‘robo-call’ (you have to sign up, and be able to speak Urdu, but you can hear it here!) from the Chief Minister, and then a text asking them to report back on the quality of the service that they received, and, most pressingly, whether they were asked to pay a bribe.

Over 2.1m text messages have been dispatched since 2010 and over 8,000 cases of corruption have been reported.  From that the quango can create so-called heat maps, illustrating where bribes tend to be demanded and how much has generally been paid.  The statistics aren’t there solely to enable law enforcement to arrest those corrupters who have been regularly mentioned, rather the aims are more subtle. On the one hand, public servants who are suspected of feathering their own nests can be tested out by so-called ‘mystery customers’.  Corrupt officials can then be caught in the act.  On the other hand, the very knowledge that the text message service exists is hopefully enough to channel the minds of some potential bribers. The system therefore has both carrots and sticks in it, as well as a degree of subtlety.

The Lahore system clearly can’t simply be transposed on to the whole of China.  It does, however, have the advantage of empowering citizens to take action.  It subsequently also doesn’t go against the ethos of the current anti-corruption drive.

One of the things that successful anti-corruption work has to do is under-promise in the hope of over-performing. All too frequently anti-corruption in practice does precisely the opposite; over-promise but ultimately under-achieve.  The Lahore experiment with anti-corruption by text message might be one small way that China could begin to make progress.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

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The funding of politics and the challenge of tackling corruption

The SCSC’s Sam Power, an ESRC-funded PhD student, writing his thesis on the complex relationship between party funding and corruption, comments here on the challenge of getting the funding of politics right …  

On 3rd February the EU published its first Anti-Corruption report which promised to provide a ‘clear picture of the situation in each Member State’ (see the full report here). Looking over the ‘national highlights’ (because thankfully irony is still alive and kicking in Brussels), the UK actually does pretty well. TI-UK’s Robert Barrington is right that the report breaks little new ground, but it does serve to bring some corruption issues into sharper focus (see Robert Barrington’s analysis here). Amongst various recommendations, such as enhancing preventative measures to address risks of foreign bribery and further strengthening accountability in the governance of banks, is the notion (very much in keeping with the TI-UK line) of capping donations to political parties. This is unsurprising, one thing that is not in short supply in the UK are myriad party funding scandals and when they occur arguments about party funding reform inevitably come to the fore. The solution of capping donations, however, is one which may not be quite as cut and dry as both TI-UK and the EU might believe.

An excellent blog on the Channel Four news website outlines a report from the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) which proposed a shake-up of the way in which political parties were funded (see the C4 blog here). Again the suggestion was a cap on donations, however the blog outlined a key point which is that a cap is tantamount to an increase in, or at least a move towards, state subsidisation. The argument here is not that state subsidisation of political parties is undesirable (although there is significant debate surrounding this), it is simply that it is an implicit effect of a cap on donations. Indeed, as the CSPL report states, ‘if the public want to take big money out of politics, the only way to do so is a cap on donations. It is unrealistic to expect to be able to do that at a level low enough to achieve the objective without at the same time increasing public support’. The question is whether the British public would support further funding an institution for which they have little trust in the first place. The TI Global Corruption Barometer 2013 showed that when asked which ‘institutions were corrupt/extremely corrupt’ it was found that 66% of respondents judged political parties to be corrupt/extremely corrupt, whereas 55% of respondents believed the same of parliament and the legislature.

Munich-based political scientist Michael Koβ, in a fascinating book on how party funding regimes change (see here), outlines a survey undertaken by the Electoral Commission in the UK in 2003 in which only 23% of respondents supported even partial state funding to political parties even though 70% of respondents believed that private donations could buy political influence. Indeed, one could argue that the UK is in an uncomfortable paradox; state subsidisation of political parties is not broadly supported in part because of the perception the public has of political parties. Which is in part because of the ‘damage’ that has been done to these institutions due in part to corruption scandals. This view of parties (and politics) as predominantly corrupt and self-serving means that an increase in state subsidy will most likely be seen as, put bluntly, an outrageous waste of public money.

So what is to be done? It is a common solution (the more unkind might say cop-out) to suggest an improved discourse between parties, the media and the public. The recommendation of the Channel Four news team is along these lines, and it has to be said it is one I have some sympathy with; ‘people cannot look in disgust at how parties are funded, but object to the solution: a measure of state funding that takes suspicion out of the equation’. However, there remains a problem with this line of argument. The analysis of Channel Four, the CSPL, the EU and TI seems to make an assumption that state funding creates a system which is necessarily less corrupt than private funding, there is very little proof, academic or otherwise, that this is the case. The move to a greater system of state subsidisation because of (perceived or actual) corrupt linkages is a move which promises no guarantee of an actual drop in levels of corruption. This ignorance is perversely linked with a relative consensus that, as Koβ argues, a key driver of a change to party funding regimes is the reliance on this very notion of corrupt linkage.

My argument is not that a cap on donations will have no effect on corruption in political finance, but rather that there is no proof that it will help. In fact it might just lead to a different type of corruption. I am further suggesting that were a change in the UK to occur, quite how this believed drop in corruption would manifest itself, both in actuality and in public perceptions, is anyone’s guess. Images of a ‘British public’ reenergized by a healthy respect for the political process as a mysterious fog of corruption lifts from Westminster the moment a bill capping donations gets passed probably falls into the realm of ‘unrealistic expectation’. In short, I am advocating for an increased research focus on different types of party funding regime and whether this leads to different types of corruption as well as an improved discourse between the media, parties and the public regarding corruption in the UK. It is a conclusion that even the kinder among us might still none the less call a cop-out.        

Sam Power