The UK makes the top ten in the CPI, but let’s not get too carried away

Transparency International (TI), the world’s leading anti-corruption NGO, has published the latest edition of its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). On the face of it, the 2015 CPI shows the UK to be doing rather well. But let’s not get carried away, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

How much corruption exists and which states are best at fighting it? Transparency International, a leading anti-corruption NGO, has developed a way of giving us at least an indication as to what the answers to these questions might be. Every year TI publishes data on perceptions of corruption around the world. The 2015 version, published on 27 January, included 168 countries and territories, with every one being given a score out of 100. The nearer to three figures a country is, the better it is performing. The nearer to zero a country is, the more work it has to do.

As has become the norm, the Nordic countries come out on top – Denmark is in first place (91 points), whilst Finland is second (90) and Sweden third (89). North Korea (8) and Somalia (8), on the other hand, are joint 167th (and last). Over the last 12 months the UK’s performance has improved noticeably. In 2014 Britain registered 78 points for 14th place. In 2015 this improved to 81 points and 10th respectively. Given that it takes time for change to happen, this leap is noticeable, and only a handful of countries can claim to have made more progress than the UK has this year (Czech Republic, Rwanda and Kuwait being good cases in point).

Why the improvement? On the one hand David Cameron’s governments have quietly begun to push a series of anti-corruption initiatives; in December 2014 the UK produced its first anti-corruption plan, for example, and David Cameron has made a number of big speeches where the issue of corruption has come up (see this one in July 2015 in Singapore for arguably the best example). Furthermore, both the Con-LD coalition and the Tory government that has followed it have made a relatively big deal out of tackling thorny issues such as revealing more about who profits from owning companies (so-called ‘beneficial ownership’).  The UK Prime Minister is also trying to mobilise international support for his anti-corruption agenda, and this will come to a head at a global anti-corruption summit in London in May 2016.  All of this is positive and, slowly but surely, the UK is making a name for itself as a real anti-corruption advocate.

We do, however, still need to be careful in reading too much in to all of this.  That’s so for two reasons. On the one hand the CPI is certainly not without its critics, and there are sound reasons not to take its findings too seriously. On the other hand the UK still faces a host of corruption challenges, and some hard yards lie ahead if these challenges are going to be met.

In terms of the CPI, it’s not clear that the results actually reflect the reality on the ground. Boiling down perceptions of corruption to one solitary number is undoubtedly an overly simplistic way of assessing the amount of corruption that is perceived to exist. Plus, in complex societies the types of corruption that financial centres such as the City of London face are likely to be altogether different to those facing, say, rural communities in northern Scotland.

Secondly, the CPI doesn’t even claim to measure what is really going on; TI, on the contrary, is always quick to claim that it measures perceived and not actual levels of corruption. Whilst knowing how people view problems is undoubtedly useful, it’s not the same as knowing what is actually going on. A nuance that can be lost all too quickly.

Respondents to the surveys included in the CPI are also left to define corruption for themselves. Practically, this makes sense, but it will of course mean that different people will be responding to a phenomenon that they could quite plausibly understand in different ways. Finally, the CPI also claims to concentrate solely on public sector corruption. That’s fine as far as it goes, but what of the regular stream of private sector indiscretions? Think Libor, think VW emissions, think GSK. The corrupt acts of private sector firms and individuals have impacts on the wider public (in these cases on the interest rates you pay, the air you breathe and the cost of the drugs that you need when you’re ill) and yet they are purposefully avoided.

So what should we make of the UK’s apparent anti-corruption success story? On the one hand, the CPI should never be taken too seriously. It has too many flaws for that. But paradoxically it may well be precisely these flaws that make people think a bit more and dig a bit deeper to work out what really is going on. In the case of the UK that digging will lead to a Prime Minister who does seem keen to make progress in this area. That doesn’t mean that the UK is sailing in tranquil waters; on the contrary, it should prompt us to engage with the challenge of, say, dealing with the money-laundering that goes through the UK’s outsized financial services sector and the open data agenda. If the CPI makes even a small contribution to helping us make progress there, then it is a parlour game worth persevering with.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

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