Cameron goes big on anti-corruption, but is the devil in the detail?

On 28 July David Cameron chose Singapore to go big on the UK government’s anti-corruption efforts.  The choice of Singapore will have been no coincidence; the late grandfather of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew turned the city-state from a place where corruption was endemic to one where a strong, vibrant anti-corruption commission, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, helped transform the country develop in to a flourishing, economic success story.  When successful anti-corruption efforts are the talk of the town, the Singaporean experience normally makes more than just an honourable appearance.

Much of what Cameron said (see here) is commendable.  His government is indeed making progress, and the 2014 National Anti-Corruption Plan (see here) provides a good framework for tackling the myriad of issues that the UK still faces.  On the specifics there is also evidence that Cameron wants to move forward; the thorny issue of the beneficial ownership of companies, for example, has been – to the surprise of many – faced down, and the UK is doing a good job in placing itself in the international vanguard in this area.  The 2010 UK Bribery Act, to take another example, is a piece of legislation that has many honourable facets.  There is subsequently mounting evidence that the UK has moved on from assuming that corruption happened in far off places about which we knew little.

Cameron nonetheless needs to be careful that he doesn’t go overboard on the rhetoric.  Matthew Hancock, formerly the UK’s anti-corruption champion, was largely noticeable by his absence in UK domestic politics, whilst his successor, Sir Eric Pickles, doesn’t possess a cabinet rank post.  In and of itself that need not be a major problem.  The head of the UK’s anti-corruption drive needs to be someone who has the character and dynamism to drive the agenda forward; Pickles, as even his detractors are likely to admit, has that.  But, as Robert Barrington, Head of Transparency International in the UK, perceptively noted back in May, Pickles, as then Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and local government, was strong at taking on alleged corruption in the problematic London borough of Tower Hamlets but much less impressive when he led the way in abolishing the audit commission – a body that had a clear and unambiguous role in revealing financial malpractice.  The fact that nothing of note replaced it was even more worrying.

It would be easy to get too caught up in the personality politics of Westminster.  But if the UK is going to carry on the good work that this regime has started and, even more importantly, if the UK’s anti-corruption plan is going to be something that has a long-term impact, then individuals need to be empowered to complete the tasks set out in the plan.  Someone needs to have ownership of it and to stand up and be accountable for implementing it. As things stand, this isn’t the case.

Unless this happens, we will continue to see grand speeches the type of which Cameron delivered in Singapore but frustratingly little in substantive terms. Unless someone specific is tasked with putting each of the plan’s aims in to practice then the successes that Cameron rightly flags will remain beacons in an otherwise choppy sea. Tackling corruption requires both strategy and stickability. The UK may well have a case for saying that it could have both – but someone needs to be tasked with illustrating that that’s the case in practice.

Dan Hough

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FIFA’s Reforms; More Smoke and Mirrors?

Sepp Blatter has announced how FIFA plans to improve its governance procedures and also to weed out corrupt practices. The ideas outlined on 20 July might sound plausible enough but they lack two crucial things; independent oversight and faith that those in charge of implementing reforms are really capable of carrying them through.

FIFA, understandably, is trying to move on from the worst set of scandals in its 111 year history. 14 current and former FIFA members are currently being investigated for a legion of alleged misdemeanours, and the great and good within the organisation appear to realise that FIFA simply cannot carry on pretending it is business as usual. It’s with that in mind that Sepp Blatter, the current President, has announced a set of reforms at a press conference in Zürich (see here for a video of the speech he gave). He began by announcing that he would not be standing for president when the next election for that position is held. This will, so we discovered, be on 26th February 2016.

The reforms themselves stem from the first FIFA Executive Committee meeting since a tumultuous FIFA congress in late May and were described by one FIFA official as a “watershed moment” in FIFA’s history. Leaving aside the surreal attempts by a British comedian to make a farce out of the proceedings (see here to watch that particular escapade), Blatter outlined five key reforms that he felt would clean up the organisation’s workings.

  • Transparency over the salaries of top FIFA officials
  • Term limits for top FIFA officials
  • A taskforce, headed by a neutral chairperson, will be set up to investigate whether, and if so which, further ethics reforms were needed.
  • FIFA’s 27 person executive committee will in all likelihood be reduced in number and it will also be elected by the 209 national federations and not through the six regional confederations.
  • Enhanced integrity checks are to be brought in for FIFA executive members

At first glance, these moves may look reasonable and forward-thinking. But the more one analyses what they are likely to mean in practice, the less convinced one becomes that they are going to mean anything substantive. Blatter has, for example, now clearly and unambiguously stated that he will be standing down; but he still has seven months to ensure that his successor – a successor who will be voted for by the same people who have been exceptionally reluctant to get rid of Blatter – does not tread all over his legacy. The chances of a genuinely new face taking over with no links to Blatter are subsequently limited a best.

It is easier to be slightly more positive about both bringing in transparency in terms of what FIFA officials earn and also in limiting the time that they can spend in office. However, if actually revealing how much the big hitters in an organisation earn is seen as a flagship reform, then that alone tells us plenty about how much else needs to be done.

The taskforce might also sound like something to be welcomed. Tough questions being asked by tough-speaking experts can only be a good thing, no? But even in Blatter’s speech he began to sow the seeds of doubt about what sort of independence this taskforce will enjoy; the chairman, for example, is going to be chosen in consultation with the presidents of FIFA’s regional confederations. They are very unlikely to opt for someone who they think is going to publicly read them the riot act. It is also unlikely that the 209 national federations will opt for sets of radical new thinkers when thinking about who should sit on the new-look executive. There will certainly be more transparency, but whether that is enough to bring with it cultural change remains very much to be seen.

Finally, the integrity checks appear like they are going to be carried out by FIFA’s own ethics committee – a committee that has proven to be toothless thus far and is, again, clearly not a body with independence hardwired in to its DNA. Anyone who has seen how the Premier League in England conducts integrity checks on owners of its clubs will be, at best, deeply suspicious about whether this process is going to lead anywhere at all. It is also worth noting that Blatter’s speech was also nothing more than that – a speech. FIFA’s 209 member associations still need to approve all of this.

In truth, much of what Blatter announced today is neither new nor radically different from what has been discussed before. Indeed, much of the substance of these ideas has been rejected by various FIFA congresses and meetings. What we probably are seeing is evidence that changing the culture of an organisation takes time, effort and no small degree of soul-searching. FIFA is not there yet. Indeed, if this is evidence of FIFA’s progress thus far, then we are still a long way from getting anywhere near where we really need to be.

Dan Hough

People power – not all that it’s cracked up to be?

Put on your cape and pull up you tights because now we can ALL be integrity warriors! Well, that seems to be the newest, en vogue idea in the world of anti-corruption at least…

Citizen engagement is an understandably popular idea. The promise of repurposing the very victims of corruption as monitors, watchdogs, data gatherers and activists evokes a powerful sense of social justice, indeed the very reason that many of us care about the corruption problem in the first place. It is a sad reality then that in practice these strategies often yield decidedly disappointing results, leading us to a difficult proposition. That perhaps it’s time to put aside the convenient morally absolutist rhetoric and break bread with the ‘enemy’.

The term “Citizen Engagement” covers a variety of strategies from the technology driven Ipaidabribe.com to the comic stunts of Dejemos de Hacernos Pendejos (Quit Being an Ass) and beyond. It is this variance that highlights one of the major strengths of the idea that just as corruption can manifest in a variety of ways so too can citizens be engaged as an appropriate reflex. However those schemes that fail to make use of the specific cultural and political landscape where they operate often achieve nothing more than “awareness raising”, an important capacity to be sure, but one seemingly ascribed to even the most disappointing of citizen engagement strategies, like the medal for ‘participation’ awarded to those of us less physically inclined for bothering to show up to our school sports day.

If we look at the work of Shayfeen.com in their “We See You…” campaign to monitor the 2005 parliamentary election in Egypt, we can see some truly inspiring innovations. Tactics included clever branding of their logo and training their members and volunteers in the use of video technology that allowed them to purportedly record thousands of incidences of corruption leading to the implication of 18 judges in electoral fraud. However despite protests and activism these judges were protected by the Mubarak regime. Again in the case of Kenya’s MUHURI (Muslims for Human Rights) which intended to conduct a social audit into the mismanagement of community development funds. Results of the scheme were limited as Kenya lacked any right to information legislation and so as one might expect obtaining the relevant documents proved difficult with the scheme relying on the voluntary participation of elected officials. Interestingly though, those elected officials who complied with the scheme were able to parley their involvement into an anti-corruption platform for future elections.

Getting citizens to engage their own collective power against corruption is relatively straightforward. Citizens are vulnerable to both the day to day negative effects of petty corruption as well the infrastructural damage caused by grand corruption and so in many ways they have the most to gain from its eradication. However enlisting the necessary cooperation from the beneficiaries of corruption will likely be more challenging. After all “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas” but maybe they’d vote for snow, indoor trees and the Dr Who Christmas special. Our turkeys have even proven their fondness for ‘gifts’. So the true challenge would appear to be designing adequate ways to incentivise officials and make use of their power and influence rather than treating them as yet another obstacle. Schemes such as the South Korean social movement CAGE (Citizens Alliance for the General Election) who produced a non-partisan blacklist of corrupt politicians designed to influence voters in upcoming elections. Whilst this scheme would appear to fit into that familiar ‘us and them’ way of thinking it has an indirect and ulterior function of promoting those ‘clean’ politicians waiting to take office. Similarly Dosta! (Enough!) in Bosnia-Herzegovina deliberately targeted the then Prime Minister Nedžad Branković in order to make an example of a prominent public figure. Again on the surface this would appear to bring the group into conflict with office holders but Branković was strategically selected by Dosta! due to his waning popularity within his own party. The ousting of Branković could then be seen as a shared goal of Dosta! and his detractors in the Party of Democratic Action.

However just as the fear of reprisal represents a major hurdle in the engagement of citizens so to might we expect public officials to be perturbed by potential retaliation. The power of public officials and institutions should not be overestimated as they operate within the same restrictive political and cultural boundaries as citizen groups. For example, Shayfeen.com’s election monitoring mentioned above lead the group to engage with two judges that attempted to bring criminal prosecutions against those involved with the alleged rigging. In retaliation these judges were themselves investigated and had charges brought against them.

Seeking the engagement of public officials will undoubtedly seem heinous to many anti-corruption champions. It will be a difficult task both practically and morally to unite citizens with public officials, many of whom may be engaged in their own corrupt activities. Choosing the lesser of evils may not be a decision that many want to make but it may be important if citizen engagement is ever to live up to its potential and not prove as inadequate as the lumbering one-size-fits-all approaches that once dominated anti-corruption policy.

Bob Ferrie

University of Sussex

The story that never seems to die; Parliamentarians and their expenses

The case of Ashley Mote (see here), the former MEP who has been sentenced to five years in prison for fiddling over £400,000 out of the European Parliament, brings, once again, the issue of parliamentary expenses to the forefront of public debate. To be fair to most of the MPs involved in the 2008/09 debacle, Mote’s case is on a different level to some of the indiscretions committed back then. Mote has been convicted of deception, false accounting, concealing criminal property and theft – that’s a fair bit heavier than quite legally using a system to, for example, claim £3,371 for a new set of furniture (Nick Ainger, Labour) or £980 for bookshelves (Peter Bottomley, Conservative – see here for a full list of who claimed for what in 2008/09). Moat, it would appear, is in a small but quite distinct league of criminals who don’t just bend the rules to suit their own interests, but choose to flagrantly flout them; the famous five MPs who went to prison on account of expenses’ claimed (David Chaytor, Jim Devine, Eric Illsley, Denis MacShane and Elliot Morley) can, with the addition of Moat, now become known as the the Sleazy Six.

Moat’s case is not, however, a particularly useful one in helping anti-corruption scholars work out ways to move the debate on what could, should and should not be claimed on expenses forward. He’s clearly broken the rules, he’s been caught and he’s going to pay for it. But working out what is and isn’t appropriate in terms of expenses claims is still not as easy as many people think it should be. At the beginning of 2014, for example, the Daily Mail (see here) ran a story expressing nothing short of outrage at the pettiness of claiming 30p for a jam doughnut (Rosie Cooper, Labour – for the record, I’d very much like to know where these 30p doughnuts are available, as that is an excellent price), 4p for travel (Tristam Hunt, Labour), 7p for a paper clip (David Cameron, Conservative), 49p for a door mat (John Barrett, Lib Dem – are MPs now shopping at Poundland? That’s a super deal) and 19p for Blu-Tac (Pat McFadden, Labour).  The downright insignificance of some of these claims to one side, the Mail was also enraged as they (the MPs) simply “don’t seem to get it”.  What precisely they don’t “seem to get” remained tantalisingly unclear, as no effort whatsoever was put in to outlining what the perfect expenses regime would look like.  That, it seems, is not the Daily Mail’s job.  It’s much more straightforward to point out some of the quirks within the system, some of the grey areas and some of the more bizarre claims.  Ideas on how to put this right?  No suggestions forthcoming.

It is easy to see both why voters will be annoyed at seeing MPs claim money back on the most trivial of things and why the Mail (amongst others) refused to outline how we might move this debate forward.  The ‘new’ post-2009 expenses regime, headed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, is undoubtedly tighter and better regulated than the system that came before it, but making value judgments on what is and what is not an acceptable expense is actually very difficult.  MPs have long grumbled that IPSA is a bureaucratic nightmare, although few have dared say that in public.  IPSA’s challenge is to create a system that can be consistent, fair and flexible.  MPs have different needs (i.e. if your constituency is Newcastle upon Tyne Central then you should surely be entitled to claim more in travel costs than if you represent, for example, London-based Twickenham) and they face different challenges in their daily work patterns; the expenses system needs to reflect this and needs to be quick enough on its feet to recognise the difference between legitimate and illegitimate claims.   If anyone reading this blog thinks they have the answer, then IPSA will no doubt be very keen to hear from you.

Dan Hough