The USA continues to drift down corruption league tables; where to now?

The 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index was published on 28 January 2021. One score that was eagerly awaited was that of the USA. Perhaps predictably, the US performed worse than it did in 2019. Is Donald Trump’s departure likely to mark a turning point in the anti-corruption thinking in the USA? Highly likely. That shouldn’t distract from the fact that the USA’s corruption problems go deeper than making sense of the behaviour of one now former president. It’s going to take time (and no little effort) to genuinely turn the ship around.

On 28th January 2021 Transparency International (TI), one of the world’s most prominent anti-corruption NGOs, published its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The USA continued its recent downward slide, coming in 25th (out of 180) with a score of 67 (out of 100). The drift has been gradual but pronounced; as recently as 2017 the USA was in 16th (with a score of 75).

The CPI ranks countries based on how much public sector corruption is believed to exist. The data comes from 13 expert surveys plus information gleaned from polls of business executives. The better a country is doing in terms of counteracting corruption, the closer its score will be to 100. The closer to 0 the worse the corruption. Denmark and New Zealand top the list (88 points), Syria (14), Somalia (12) and South Sudan (12) fill the bottom three places.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the CPI is not a failsafe way of measuring corruption. For one thing, and as its name suggests, it’s an indicator of perceptions and not reality. Its focus is on public sector corruption rather than indiscretions that take place within the private sector. Coming up with a simple score that does justice to complex corruption networks is also a task fraught with difficulty. But, as an indicator of broader trends, the CPI still gives corruption-watchers a feel for how corruption patterns are developing.

COVID RESPONSES AS WEATHER VEINS

The rollercoaster presidency of Donald Trump has certainly played a role in the USA’s worsening performance. But, getting a grip of ideas of good and bad governance also helps us understand how and when patterns of corruption are likely to change. Good governance matters all the time. But it is particularly important in times of crisis. When the quality of governance slips, expect crises to highlight all of the weak points in political systems. The USA in 2020 is a perfect case in point.

Strong oversight mechanisms, for example, are important in preventing abuse of hastily put together relief packages. That’s true whether the relief concerns supporting victims of weather-related disasters such as Hurricane Katarina or indeed health crises such as Covid 19. In the case of the former claims have been made that over US$1bn was siphoned off by fraudsters. In the case of the latter, it’s been argued that close friends of Donald Trump received in excess of $10bn dollars of that relief spending to distribute whilst blanket exemptions from ethical reviews were seemingly granted. In the words of TI, this sort of approach to relief package management “raised serious concerns and marked a retreat from longstanding democratic norms promoting accountable government”.

MOVING FORWARD
How does the USA begin to row back against this? The consensus in the anti-corruption would suggest looking at three specific things. Firstly, politicians will inevitably make mistakes. That goes with the territory. Being able to spot the difference before a genuine mistake and a potentially corrupt act is vital. The best way of doing that is to strengthen oversight institutions. Those institutions are briefed to look at and unpack potential acts of corruption (understood in its broadest sense). They need to have sufficient resources and sufficient independence to then be able to do their jobs properly. If a politician is scared of outside eyes looking in, then that in and of itself might be a telltale sign of something untoward happening.

Secondly, information on links between government and those who formally interact with it are often clouded in secrecy. Data on which firms win which public contracts, for example, need to be put into the public domain as a matter of course. How much are the contracts worth? What links do the bidders have to those inside government? At times there are good reasons to withhold information (i.e. national security concerns), but the norm has to be transparency first and secrecy second. Not the other way round.

Thirdly, facts matter. There are no ‘alternative facts’. The world is a complex place, but policy-making needs to done on a clear evidential base. That won’t make every policy the right policy, it won’t mean that there isn’t debate on the right course of action. It won’t prevent all mistakes. But it will at least help onlookers understand why decisions have been made. That is important in helping build and maintain legitimacy. Given the tumultuous end to Trump presidency, that’s something that all advocates of democracy to need actively embrace.

Dan Hough
University of Sussex

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