Donald Trump’s ‘Winter White House’ and definitions of corruption

One of the challenges inherent in teaching courses on corruption and anti-corruption is defining precisely what the term means. And, this week saw me set out on my annual struggle to do exactly that. It’s one of the more tricky sessions on my final year undergraduate option on ‘political corruption’. In many ways, it’s easiest to follow the same logic as that of American Supreme Court Judge, Justice Potter Stewart; in 1964, when presiding over the case of Jacobellis v Ohio, he once noted about pornography that he couldn’t come up with a watertight definition of it, but he certainly knew what it was when he saw it.

That’s a fair starting point for analysing corruption, too; for the most part bribes, nepotism, fraud and such like are recognisable when you see them. But, as you dig deeper it soon becomes clear that conducting any sort of research on a phenomenon you’re defining in “I know it when I see it” terms is very difficult indeed. Corruption analysts have subsequently spent a fair amount of time thinking about what precisely it is that they are unpacking (see here and here for a couple of attempts to do that).

The Definitional Challenge

Traditionally, analysts of political life saw corruption as a move away from a non-corrupt state. Thinkers in Ancient Rome, for example, often saw corruption as a moral aberration. Many early analysts of corruption subsequently had a very broad understanding of the term seeing it, as Carl Friedrich once noted, as “a decomposition of the body politic” that came about through “immoral decay”. A panopoly of behaviours were then put in to this general category, largely in the belief that they were “dysfunctional and hence morally corrupt.”

Over the last 50 years, the focus has narrowed considerably. It had to. Conducting empirical research is impossible without a definition that’s a little more practical. That led to (an at times uneasy) consensus developing around a definition put forward by the American political scientist Joseph Nye. He claimed corruption to be the abuse of a public role for private gain.

Nye’s thinking can be clearly seen in the thinking of Transparency International, the world’s leading anti-corruption NGO, when it talks of “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. The OECD follows suit, labelling corruption as “the active or passive misuse of the powers of public officials (appointed or elected) for private financial or other benefits”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also sings very much from the same hymn sheet (“the abuse of public office for private gains”) as does the World Bank (virtually the same, with just an ‘s’ added to ‘gain’). This understanding of corruption as a deliberate act where an official uses the discretion at her disposal to skew a process or an outcome in her favour is now very widely followed.

Making definitions work in the real world

Labelling something as corrupt therefore means thinking about the constituent parts of a process. More specifically, we need to keep an eye out for four things;

  1. The act needs to be deliberate. Corruption is never accidental. Corruption has nothing to do with incompetence or the inability to fulfill tasks. They may be side-effects, but they don’t define the concept.
  2. The act needs to involve some sort of abuse. The person involved needs to be acting in a way which contravenes accepted understandings of what is and is not appropriate.
  3. Conventional understandings of corruption involve power holders abusing the entrusted power that they are granted.
  4. There has to be some sort of private gain. Often that gain is financial, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be come in a variety of other forms, whether they be status or power-related, or in, say, the provision of sexual services. The private gain can also accrue to friends, family or other organisations known to the corrupted party.

The Winter White House

When talking undergraduates through this it really does help to use real-world examples. And they aren’t generally lacking.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, an almost copybook case appears to have materialised in the USA. Donald Trump’s three weeks at the head of the US executive has hardly been lacking in incident, and that may be the reason that his attitude to and use of ‘The Winter White House’ has been largely overlooked.

Judd Legum, a journalist with ‘Think Progress‘, nonetheless posted a series of tweets on Saturday evening (11 February) about the way the recent visit of Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, to the USA panned out. The US President, Donald Trump, and Abe spent time at what Trump has been describing as the ‘Winter White House’. A nice, catchy phrase that has immediately settled in to the journalistic lexicon.

The ‘Winter White House’ is actually a private members club called Mar-e-Lago. Two of Trump’s three weekends as President have been spent there. He dined with Abe there. Donald Trump, furthermore, owns the club. According to Legum, before Trump became President the joining fee used to be $100,000. It’s now $200,000. The club is clearly gaining in profile and is being talked about more than ever before (including, I guess, via blogs like this).

Where’s the problem, you may ask? Well, Mar-e-Lago is now well set to make significantly more money than it might otherwise have done. Plus, anyone who wants to curry favour with the President may think it prudent to frequent establishments that he owns.

Much ado about nothing? Well, no, not really …

Donald Trump’s presidency has already thrown up plenty of things that have got the commentariat talking. In many ways his branding of a club that he owns as the ‘Winter White House’ is understandably not quite at the top of the list of things to be worried about. But, it would appear that there is at the very least circumstantial evidence that he is using his position as the President of the USA to flag up, and indeed re-brand, a private members’ club that he owns. The price of using the club has already doubled. His regular tweets on the subject can only raise its profile.

If the framework outlined above is any help in pinning this traditionally elusive concept down, then Trump is walking on thin ice.  Corruption is a process and defining it involves pinpointing the constituent parts of that process.  Only then can (and indeed should) morals and values enter the discussion. Whatever way you look at this case, there is – at the very least – a case to be made that The Donald’s behaviour warrants plenty of further scrutiny in this regard.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex


China’s anti-corruption drive. Small steps made in lots of different directions

How effective is Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive? If you believe the latest data published by anti-corruption NGO Transparency International then progress is indeed being made.  But, it’s slow going.

Trying to measure how much corruption exists is often a fool’s errand.  Corruption comes in many shapes and sizes and takes on a variety of different forms.  This doesn’t stop Transparency International, one of the world’s leading anti-corruption NGOs, from publishing an annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).  Data is taken from a range of surveys on corruption and related issues and put in to what is effectively a poll of polls.  States are then ranked on a scale of 1 (the worst score possible) to 100 (the best).

There are many reasons to be just a little sceptical about the voracity of the data in the CPI, but that doesn’t stop it catching many policy-makers’ eyes.  No one wants to see their country going the wrong way in tables like these.  Chinese policy-makers are unlikely to be any different.

The 2016 data was released on Wednesday 25th January.  It makes interesting reading. Perennial front-runners Denmark and New Zealand again head the pack, coming in joint first with scores of 90.  Finland, Sweden and Switzerland are just behind them and they make up the top five.  Somalia remains bottom of the pile (10 points), with South Sudan (11), North Korea (12) and Syria (13) also doing particularly poorly.  Suriname showed the most improvement, scoring 45 in 2016 as opposed to 36 the year before.  The impact of high profile scandals surrounding the awarding of football world cups no doubt contributed to Qatar being the state that performed worst compared to 2015; down ten points from 71 to 61.

China has traditionally not done particularly well in the CPI.  In 2015 it was in 83rd place (out of 168 countries), scoring 37 out of 100. 2016 reveals some improvement; China’s score rose by three points to 40 and the PRC is now 79th out of 176 countries (8 have been added since the 2015 table was published).  A journey of 1000 miles begins, as the Chinese say, with one small step.

We should nonetheless be wary of taking the data in the CPI too seriously. Coming up with one single number to encapsulate all of China’s corruption problems, for example, would seem like a heroically optimistic undertaking.  How, for example, do you compare petty corruption in rural Guangxi with the grand corruption that might well take place in Beijing? Many would say you can’t.

Be that as it may, if you’re going to get to where you need to go, then you have to be taking steps in the right direction. And this data makes it look like China may indeed be doing just that.  Chinese policy-makers are certainly likely to be pleased to see their score moving upwards.

If, however, we take a closer look at what tends to characterise low corruption countries, then Chinese policy-makers will find much less to be enthusiastic about.  As Transparency International’s Chairman, José Ugaz, noted this week three key things help states genuinely root out corrupt practices; freedom of expression, transparency in all political processes and strong democratic institutions.  Only then will civil society and the media be able to hold those in power to account and only then will the building blocks for a successful anti-corruption fight be in place.

China, of course, displays precisely none of those core traits.  Freedom of expression is strictly limited, decision-making processes are opaque and convoluted, and democratic institutions in the widely-understood sense don’t exist.  The civil society organisations that are permitted have only very narrow room for manoeuvre and the press is there to defend the Communist Party’s line much more than to hold it to account.

Ugaz may nonetheless be simplifying what is actually something that is very complex. Off the shelf anti-corruption tools don’t exist, and the ‘right’ way to tackle corruption will depend on the nature of the challenge to hand.  What works in one place may well have little impact in another and be counter-productive in a third jurisdiction.  The introduction of democratic institutions across Africa in the latter part of the 20th Century, for example, did little to help those states tackle endemic corruption.  Indeed, in some it actually made it worse.  Tackling corruption is subsequently messy, it’s time-consuming and it’s difficult.

Xi’s China will certainly have to find a ‘Chinese Way’ of tackling the corruption evident in the PRC.  That may well involve different ideas and different approaches to what we’ve seen elsewhere.  But that doesn’t mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. Much of what the CCP has been doing under Xi flies directly in the face of what anti-corruption thinkers tend to believe might work.  Small improvements in a global anti-corruption league table shouldn’t disguise that.



The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI); much ado about nothing?

Earlier today Transparency International, arguably the world’s most well-known anti-corruption NGO, published the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Despite taking plenty of criticism over the years, the CPI has become an integral part of the global anti-corruption discussion. Proponents and critics alike are rarely slow in coming forward to unpack its findings. SCSC Director Dan Hough analyses why the CPI manages to generate such controversy.

Some things are almost guaranteed to prompt a reaction. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is one of those such things. Very few people sit on the fence and claim to be non-plussed by what has become the most well-known attempt to get a feel for how much corruption may plausibly exist. Some commentators use it as an indicator of how much needs to be done, others regard it as an (often forlorn) exercise in quantifying the unquantifiable. Very rarely is anyone ever neutral about it.

Before launching in to any critique of the CPI, it’s worth remembering what exactly the index is and where it has come from. The CPI is a composite index. A variety of data sources are used to create what is in effect a poll of polls on perceptions of corruption in around the world. Data is gathered from surveys of business people and country experts with the aim of measuring perceived levels of public sector corruption. TI provides a detailed account of where its data comes from and also how it uses it, and this is accessible via TI’s own website.

The Results

The CPI was first published in 1995 when it included 41 countries, with New Zealand achieving the best score (i.e. nearest to 10) and Indonesia the worst (nearest to 0). Over the years TI has changed the way it presents and indeed produces its results, with the range of scores now stretching from 100 (no corruption) to 0 (complete corruption).

This year’s CPI included 176 countries (although in 2011 it included as many as 183), with Denmark (90) and New Zealand (90) at the top of the pile and Somalia (10) at the bottom (for the tenth year running). Predictably, the best performing countries share a significant number of characteristics. They are generally open, liberal democracies with a free press. They embrace the notion of transparency, therefore helping citizens see where their hard-earned tax money gets spent. They have independent judiciaries, and all support long-held assumptions about increased accountability leading to lower levels of corruption.

The Scandinavians always do very well, as do countries in western Europe more generally. There are, however, always interesting outliers when compared to their regional peers; Singapore (7th in 2016) regularly appears in the top 10, whilst Botswana (joint 35th) leaves many of its African counterparts in its wake. The countries at the bottom, meanwhile, also have lots in common; leaving North Korea (12) to one side, they are war-torn and bordering on the ungovernable. The fact that South Sudan (11), Syria (13), Yemen (14), Sudan (14) and Libya (15) are immediately above Somalia (10) is evidence of that.

Criticisms of the CPI

The CPI’s prominence has certainly not shielded it from criticism. Indeed, criticising the methodology that underpins the CPI has become a veritable cottage industry (see here, here and here). These criticisms cover a number of issues. To start with, boiling down a country’s corruption troubles to one score is, to put it mildly, methodologically problematic. The type, scope and extent of corruption evident in, say, the city administration of Chicago is likely to be altogether different to that which you’ll find in, for example, rural Arizona. Computing one score to accurately cover such variety is always going to be very difficult. Plus, if a state were ever to register a score of 100, what precisely would that mean? What does a country that apparently has no corruption at all actually look like? Or, conversely, what would a country that scored 0 (totally corrupt) look like? Any discussion of utopias usually ends in disagreement, and it is very likely that that would be the case here.

Furthermore, measuring concepts such as democracy, justice, fairness and indeed corruption is hard at the best of times, but those who do it well acknowledge that their attempts are always approximations. Indeed, statisticians have developed their own language to discuss the problems in getting these measurements right. Even though the CPI’s methodology has undoubtedly got more rigorous over the years, none of this is overtly acknowledged. This has led some researchers to cast doubt on whether this data can be put to any real use at all.

One particular challenge concerns the problem of defining corruption. It is not always clear what respondents actually understand the term corruption to mean. The terms bribery and corruption often appear to be used interchangeably plus responses to the various surveys are very likely to be shaped by – whether directly or indirectly – the assumptions and attitudes of the western business community. That is the case for the simple reason that the majority of people asked have roots in this particular milieu.

The problem of perception

The CPI also measures perceptions of corruption rather than corruption itself. TI regularly and consistently acknowledges that this can be problematic. While knowing more about how citizens perceive a phenomenon certainly has its uses, it is also plausible that perception and reality might differ considerably. As Ritva Reinikka and Jakob Svensson succinctly note “perception indices raise concerns about biases”. These potential biases may well mean that the CPI is actually (and inadvertently) distorting reality, and simply reinforcing stereotypes and clichés.

A further limitation is that the CPI focuses on perceptions of public sector corruption. In other words, the corruption that takes place in and around governments and public servants. It says nothing about corruption in private business. The rigging of Libor (the rate of interest that banks charge each other when lending money between themselves) in Britain, for example, or the VW emissions controversies in the United States (and indeed elsewhere) involve private actors, but they have very real public impacts, whether on the interest rates that people pay on their mortgages or on public health.

Babies and Bathwater

These problems have prompted a significant number of analysts to be quite scathing about the CPI. Steve Sampson, speaking for many in the development studies community, is sceptical of what he regards as “corruption becoming a scientific concept”. Even fellow quantifiers such as Stephen Knack have criticized some of the statistical techniques that TI has employed in the past. Indeed, Anwar Shah and Theresa Thompson leave no one in any doubt as to how grave they think the CPI’s methodological shortcomings are when they state that “closer scrutiny of the methodology … raises serious doubts about the usefulness of aggregated measures of corruption” and “potential bias introduced by measurement errors lead to the conclusion that these measures are unlikely to be reliable, especially when employed in econometric analyses”. Knack’s careful dissection of the CPI raises further significant issues about the independence – in a statistical sense – of the data used, claiming that many of the ‘statistically significant’ changes that TI claims to have uncovered would not in reality be so if “appropriate corrections for interdependence” had been made.

Facing down the criticisms

For its part, TI has certainly tried its level best both to be open about the methodological shortcomings of the CPI (as well as its other corruption indices) and also to adjust them wherever possible. The founder of the CPI index, Johann Graf Lambsdorff, for example, is careful to acknowledge some of the methodological issues inherent in all composite indicators and he is always careful to describe changes in country scores from year to year as changes in perceived corruption rather in actual corruption levels.

TI has also tacitly admitted that the CPI has its limitations by the very fact that it has developed a whole host of other indices – such as the Bribe Payers Index and the Global Corruption Barometer – to look at both the perceptions and experiences of specific groups of stakeholders (ranging from businessmen to households).

And yet, all these criticisms not withstanding, the CPI has done one indisputable thing; it has put the issues of corruption and anti-corruption well and truly on the policy map. As Andersson and Heywood observe;

“We should not underplay its significance in the fight against corruption: its value goes beyond the stimulation of research activity, since the publication of the CPI each autumn has generated widespread media interest across the world and contributed to galvanising international anti-corruption initiatives, such as those sponsored by the World Bank and the OECD”.

Even staunch critics of the quantification of corruption have begrudgingly admitted that “whatever its limitations” the development of the CPI has “undoubtedly done much to promote the anti-corruption agenda”. It is also doubtful that any of the more nuanced indices that both TI itself and other organizations have developed would have seen the light of day if the CPI hadn’t existed before them.

The CPI certainly doesn’t represent the gospel in terms of global levels of corruption. There are plenty of problems with its methodology and subsequently with its findings. But anyone who takes the detailed numbers produced in the CPI too seriously is missing the point. The CPI, for all its sins, has a constructive role to play in helping us think just a little more about how we can better measure corruption and how the battle against corruption can subsequently be taken forward,

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

How much corruption is out there? Well, that depends …

In recent years attempts to measure how much corruption exists have blossomed. Some approaches are based on perceptions of corruption, some on the experiences of individuals. Others use a range of proxies to measure what they argue might be corruption. Subsequently we now have broad aggregate indicators such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions’ Index (CPI) and the Control of Corruption variable in the World Governance Indicators (WGI), as well as much narrower and more focussed indices looking at, amongst other things, state capture, levels of financial secrecy and the quality of the business environment.

One of the most widely-watched of these attempts is TI’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB), the latest editions of which were published late in 2016. The development of the GCB in 2003 was an attempt to move the previous emphasis away from seeking the opinions of experts and business leaders and on to ordinary people. The GCB is a public opinion survey that in 2013 asked 114,000 citizens in 107 countries about their “direct experiences with bribery” before going on to detail citizens’ “views on corruption in the main institutions in their countries”. The latest round of the GCB, published in stages through 2015 and 2016, is equally as expansive. The intention of the GCB is to bring ordinary people in to a field where their experiences and perceptions have traditionally been neglected.

Corruption is (apparently) everywhere

The GCB’s findings give plenty of food for thought. In 2013 more than one in four people around the world reported paying a bribe at some point over the last 12 months. The police and the judiciary were apparently the most bribe-prone institutions. Over half the people surveyed regarded their government as acting in the interests of preferred groups rather than the citizenry at large.

The picture was in many ways just as downbeat in the apparently less-corrupt western world. In the 2016 survey, for example, 53 per cent of citizens across 42 European and central Asian countries believed that their government was doing a poor job in fighting corruption. Perceptions were particularly gloomy in Spain (where 80 per cent of people thought their government was doing badly in this regard), Italy (70 per cent) and France (64 per cent).

Alongside data on questions like these, the 2013 survey also revealed that 65 per cent of New Zealanders – a country that is regularly vying for the top spot in the CPI – felt that over the last two years the level of corruption had increased in their country, whilst only 5 per cent felt that it had decreased. The picture was little better over the Tasman Sea in Australia; over the same time period 59 per cent of Australians thought corruption had worsened whereas, like in New Zealand, only 5 per cent thought it had got better. Things were not dissimilar in Europe; 57 per cent of Germans believed that there was more corruption in their country than two years previously whilst only 8 per cent thought there was less. Furthermore, 65 per cent of Germans thought political parties were in general corrupt, 54 per cent thought the same of the media whilst 49 per cent thought civil servants were either ‘corrupt’ or ‘extremely corrupt’. Sobering numbers.

Perception and reality

The GCB has now firmly established itself as an important part of the measurement mosaic. To TI’s credit, it reacted to criticisms of some of its other indices (principally the CPI) by introducing a detailed survey that helps bring people on the street back in to the discussion. Data such as this does nonetheless highlight two further potential problems.

Firstly, sceptics such as Claudio Weber Abramo have illustrated that opinions on corruption as revealed by the GCB “are strongly correlated with opinions about other issues”. It may well be that rather than picking up specific attitudes to corruption the GCB is tapping in to a much larger worldview. Indeed, Weber Abramo claims that the correlation is so strong that we could actually save ourselves the time and effort of measuring public opinion in this area by simply reading across from data on attitudes to things such as human rights and violence.

Secondly, many of the things that we think can help predict levels of perceived corruption (economic development, press freedom and so on) are not good predictors of how much corruption people claim that they personally have witnessed. In other words there is at times a considerable difference between the amount of corruption that people perceive to exist and the amount that they themselves experience. Only 1 per cent of Australians over the 12 months to 2013 paid a bribe, for example, yet 53 per cent think corruption is a problem. In the 2016 survey no Britons (!) reported paying a bribe, yet 57 per cent of people thought that the UK government was doing badly at fighting corruption.

This discrepancy could, of course, be a reflection of citizen awareness of grand corruption that they themselves don’t experience directly. The differences between what people think and what people experience are nonetheless often very large indeed. Furthermore, the size of these differences can differ noticeably from place to place. Such discrepancies are not simply the domain of the GCB; Eurobarometer surveys reveal similar patterns. As Paul Heywood has noted, 74 per cent of European citizens surveyed in the 2012 Eurobarometer surveys believed corruption to be a ‘major problem’ yet only 8 per cent reported any experience of bribery or attempted bribery.

Where to next?

Data on corruption is now in abundant supply. But it would be disingenuous to claim that analysis of it is an exact science. All of the organisations that produce indices (no matter whether they deal with perceptions, experiences or proxies of corruption) point out, to greater or lesser extents, the weaknesses in their respective approaches. TI and other organisations in the data-producing field may, in other words, talk up their respective efforts to quantify aspects of corrupt practice (and who can blame them), but they do also realise that they are dealing in imperfections.

The GCB offers a plethora of interesting information.  But, as with all corruption indices, we should be careful of reading too much into it. Someone, somewhere across the UK, for example, will have paid a bribe over the last 12 months, and just because the GCB didn’t reveal that statistically doesn’t mean that bribery doesn’t exist. The GCB is merely illustrating that everyday bribery is not a common facet of life in the UK whereas it is in other parts of the world.

Corruption is complex, multifaceted and riddled with nuance, and this makes quantifying it very difficult indeed. The GCB can help us spot trends and illustrate the scale and scope of particular types of corruption. But it is just an indicator not a statement of fact. If used carefully, the data can have a constructive role to play in helping us think just a little more about how the battle against corruption can be taken forward. What it shouldn’t be is taken as the gospel truth.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

Understanding the ‘incorruptible’ Jonas; the curious case of South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Finance

South Africa’s Public Protector has this week released a much-anticipated ‘state capture’ Report. The report offers up details of the vast influence that the Gupta family wields in the appointment of government ministers and the board members of major parastatals (see here).

The Gupta family has strong links with South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma. One of Zuma’s wives was employed as a communications officer at JIC Mining Services while his daughter is a former director of Sahara Computers. Both companies belong to the Guptas. Zuma’s son is a former CEO of Shiva Uranium, a subsidiary of Oakbay Investments, the holding company of the Gupta family businesses. The India-born Gupta brothers (Atul, Ajay and Rajesh) have interests in mining (coal, gold and uranium), technology, energy and media. They own among other things a national newspaper and 24-hour news channel.

In 2013, the family was embroiled in controversy when a chartered plane carrying guests to the wedding of their niece landed at a military base in Pretoria (see here). It was alleged that the landing was personally authorised by the president as a favour to friends.

The Guptas’ alleged power and influence

One of the interesting parts of the Public Protector’s Report is the notion that the Gupta family engineered both the abrupt sacking of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, and his replacement by the previously unknown, David Van Rooyen. Zuma reversed the decision to appoint van Rooyen following a serious backlash from the business sector and billions of dollars being wiped off the nation’s stock market over just four days.

The Report supports Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas’ public allegation that ‘the Guptas offered him the position of minister of finance before Nene was deposed. It turns out that Jonas declined this offer, as well as a bribe amounting to R600 million ($44m) and immediate cash payment of R600,000 (about $44,000). As a finance minister Jonas was supposed to implement a number of orders from the Guptas including sacking the Director General of the Treasury and other key members of executive management who were seen as stumbling blocks in efforts to secure lucrative deals from the state.

The incorruptible Jonas?

The actions of Deputy Minister Jonas are interesting when seen in light of the collective action theory of corruption (see here). Seeing that as corruption is endemic in South Africa, the collective action approach would consider an attempt to fend off the powerful Gupta family as being misguided or irrational. Considering the Guptas overwhelming political clout and the apparent arrogance with which they made their offers, most people would have yielded, reasoning that refusing to cooperate wasn’t going to change the rotten lot in Zuma’s administration. If anything, fighting the Guptas would most likely cost them their careers. Meanwhile, the Guptas would still have used their vast economic and political resources to identify a willing puppet, as indeed it seems they did in the person of David van Rooyen.

Apart from the fact that ‘working with the Guptas’ would be financially rewarding to Jonas, being appointed in place of Nene would probably appease sceptical investors. The appointment of a deputy minister of finance wouldn’t have hurt the market the way Van Rooyen’s— a former mayor of a small town— did. The whole thing would likely have been a win-win situation for all involved. All these considered, why then did Jonas make this potentially personally costly decision?

Well, his media statement (see here), suggests that he took a moral stance against what he saw as the “mockery of our hard earned democracy [and] the trust of our people….”.  But this is simply reiterating an ethics code we expect all public officers to uphold, and to declare when called upon to explain their gallant actions. It is a moral code many of those who get ensnared in the web of corruption also profess. Indeed, there is no shortage of stories of highly moral individuals getting involved in graft, either as receivers of bribes or as payers. This is in fact one of the reasons why anti-corruption research is increasingly sceptical of the alleged positive effect of ‘religiosity’ (as a proxy for moral values) in the fight against corruption (see here).

Where corruption is seen as systemic, whether or not to participate in it does not boil down to personal ethics and values; it is a consequence of institutional forces rather than a broken moral compass. There is something about the decision to resist the Guptas that goes beyond the moral convictions of Mcebisi Jonas.

Mark Granovetter’s threshold model of collective action provides a good starting point for understanding deputy minister’s laudable actions. The model treats binary decisions in which an actor, faced with two competing alternatives, makes a behavioural choice that is inconsistent with the maximum pay off he would get if he acted differently. Granovetter defines a person’s threshold for acting in the group (public) interest as the proportion of the group he would have to see acting in this manner before doing so himself.

A student with a low threshold will not wait for “gestures” from other students indicating their wish to leave a boring lecture before he stands up and leaves. Such an individual can initiate actions that benefit the common good even when this is most likely to result in significant costs to him/herself. While moral considerations may be a starting point, they are not necessarily the main reasons why a low-threshold person acts, often or at first alone. This potentially explains why two people with the same moral principles can act differently when faced with the Gupta-type overtures.


Moletsane Monyake

University of Sussex

Is there a lack of accountability for the use of ‘our’ time by MPs?

There has plenty of news of late on MPs and their second jobs (for example, see here).  Martin Brown, recently graduated from Sussex’s MA in Corruption and Governance, takes a look at some of the challenges inherent in regulating how MPs use ‘our time’

MPs are lobbyists. They spend their time lobbying for us. They do that in order to make better laws and to scrutinise the work of government, ministers and civil servants. MPs know that it is only through careful research, consultation and consideration that good political decisions can be taken. In order to do that they meet with a wide range of stakeholders, some of those people are by necessity lobbyists. Lobbying, a term much used and abused, is an exchange of information.  Or, as Figuero and Richter (2014) put it an exchange of information …

‘… in private meetings and venues between interest groups and politicians, their staffs, and agents. Information takes the theoretical representation of a message and, in practice, may have many forms: statistics, facts, arguments, messages, forecasts, threats, commitments, signals, or some combination thereof. (Figuero and Richter, 2014)

Unfortunately for us, meetings between lobbyists and MPs tend to go unrecorded, while much of what an MP says otherwise is recorded – by Hansard, if it’s in parliament, or in the media if it is in public elsewhere. Of course we don’t pay as much attention as we should to what MPs say until lobbying goes wrong or when an MP’s behaviour comes into question. When, in other words, it deviates from:

‘the formal duties of a public role because of private-regarding (personal, close family, private clique) pecuniary or status gains; or violates rules against the exercise of certain types of private- regarding influence. (Nye 1967)

We know MPs make honest mistakes. Indeed, the MPs’ Code of Conduct and Guide to Rules (CoC) and the MPs’ Scheme of Business Costs and Expenses (SBCE) are designed to help MPs make as few of them as possible, offering guidance for better ethical behaviour, for example when his or her formal or informal duties overlap with their private interests. These mostly useful guides don’t always work because the advice on offer can be confusing: ‘the code applies to all aspects of their public lives. It does not seek to regulate what members do in their purely private and personal lives (CoC p3 2015).

Public and Private

It is difficult to draw, as they suggest, a solid line between an MP’s public and private interests. The Wittingdale case (BBC, April 2016) is an illustration of this problem, when a politician has too much discretion and is then judged to have ‘got it wrong’, defining a public issue as purely private.

In the John Wittingdale case, the former Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, maintained that his relationship with someone working in the sex industry should remain a private matter. He thought the public should not know about some newsworthy episodes even though he had responsibility for press regulation and his office could influence what journalists write. MPs, understandably, want to protect their privacy and their Parliamentary privileges. It is they after all, who defend democracy on our behalf.

What is much less understandable is their ‘need’ to protect privileges relating to second jobs and consultancies. Winston Churchill was a strong advocate of the idea that an MP’s Parliamentary office should not be a full time commitment. Many MPs (although more on the Tory side than on the Labour side) think it is good for the public if MPs stay in touch with the ‘real world’ by working outside of the House of Commons. However, this now looks more like the type of ‘smart’ behaviour Donald Trump would argue for. Many MPs have second jobs, some are happy to admit to selling their time and political connections to big businesses. John Bercow MP, Leader of the House of Commons, clearly thinks it is still bad behaviour:

“people should be in Parliament to represent their constituents and to stand up for principles and policies dear to them. People should not be in Parliament to add to their personal fortune… I have in the past suggested a lot of members of the public would expect members of parliament to do a full-time job” (Skye News, 2015)

Public trust in MPs is still trying to recover from the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2008. Public understanding of British politics has not improved, even with better access to information about Parliament from Freedom of Information requests (Birkenshaw, 2010). We still do not know what excellent or even just ‘good’ behaviour in an MP’s office looks like. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) reports on MPs’ office expenses, offering fiscal transparency, but even this is thin soup without any useful narrative about how MPs make decisions or what they do with their time. We can see that IPSA and the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (PCS) take complaints and they do question MPs. However, only a tiny number of these investigations result in Parliamentary sanctions being placed on MPs. The Parliamentary system more often defends the decisions of MPs, possibly fearing what appears to them as a slow erosion of MPs’ powers because of a small number of bad apples.

However the problem remains; how do we get better, more useful information from MPs to help us understand what they do with our time? The current system of disclosures and registers, such as the Register of MP’s Financial Interests and the Register of All Party Parliamentary Groups, is not easily searchable across years or for individual MPs and there is no easy method of comparing information across registers. Transparency International has published very useful information about the UK Lobbying Act 2014 and they outline reforms for the Lobbying Register which include some essential disclosures.

Revolving Doors

These disclosures are also essential for fixing the larger problem of ‘Revolving Doors’, when long-term benefits accrue to MPs, Ministers and Civil Servants because of their co-operation with lobbyists. Listen to what Richard Brook’s a former HMRC Tax Inspector has to say about the problems of crony capitalism in our democracy and how lobbying creates the expectation of future employment. Lobbying shifts an MP’s priorities away from their official duties towards the interests of big business.

Brooks tells us Tony Blair is the worst example of this type of deviation. Blair actively conceals the names of those he consults with and for and hides what he earns as a lobbyist through his network of companies. We should also ask does David Cameron plan to use his political contacts in the same way as Blair and should we know who those political contacts are when he uses them? The Lobbying Act 2014 asks very little of serving or retired politicians while 650 MPs are not required to keep any records at all of their meetings with lobbyists. Keep in mind that some MPs are more sought after by lobbyists than others because they are members of Select Committees or active in the Shadow Cabinet. These MPs are in demand as lobbying scandals involving ‘cash for access’ show. In 2013, Patrick Mercer MP broke ‘house’ rules when he failed to declare paid political consultancy and paid advocacy while he was Chair of the Fiji All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG).

In 2015, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP used his position as Chair of Parliament’s Security and Intelligence Committee and argued that despite his workload as an MP and Chair of an important Select Committee, he had plenty of time for political consultancy.

Rifkind was seen to be greedy. An MP earns £74,962 pa (April 2016) with an additional £15,000 pa for chairing a Select Committee. Ben Scott analysed MPs’ disclosures of additional income from the MPs’ Register of Members Financial Interests (RMFI) in 2015, showing that: ‘73 MPs were paid £3.4million for advisory roles in 2014-15’. Scott aggregated all payments by type and noted that declared payments for advisory roles accounted for 36% and £3,444,797 of all additional income for MP’s.

It appears unlikely that the current system of self–regulation and co-regulation in the House of Commons will offer us better transparency or more accountability around how MPs take decisions. However, in that space there is an opportunity for (Labour?) MPs to lead by collective voluntary action, by making better digital declarations about meetings to provide a narrative that can fill in the gaps left by IPSA and Parliamentary Registers. Whether they are able to take it is another matter.

Martin Brown

Big money, politics and public opinion; a difficult mixture

UK democracy is in a crisis of confidence. These are the findings released in a report on Friday by Transparency International (TI) entitled ‘Take Back Control: How Big Money Undermines Trust in Politics’.

The headline figures undoubtedly make grim reading for the British political elite: 76% of respondents think wealthy individuals often use their influence on government for their own interests, 59% of respondents thought financial support by companies to political parties and candidates should be banned completely and 28% thought ‘most’ or ‘all’ MPs are involved in corruption.

These findings are based on the TI Global Corruption Barometer (GCB). The full results of the 2016 survey are not yet available but previous polls are also instructive. The 2013 GCB, for example, found that 66% of respondents felt that political parties were corrupt, or extremely corrupt.

The GCB is not without its methodological failings. Taken at face value the poll would mean the UK would rank somewhere between Afghanistan (performs better) and Zimbabwe (performs worse) on the same measures. Despite the legitimate, and legion, disappointments we might have with our political elite that is not a ranking that holds up to serious scrutiny. Indeed, when the same poll asks about actual experiences of corruption, the UK comes out much better.

Following the Voters’ Wishes

However, as I show in the recently published collection ‘More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: Another 50 Things You Need To Know About Elections’ findings such as these are consequential. Politicians feel compelled to respond to the overwhelming public belief that the system is broken. In 2010 and 2015 the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos all included some form of pledge to introduce (or at least discuss) reform of party finance. Alongside this, in the past ten years there have been two major government sponsored commissions on the subject: the Hayden Phillips Review (2006-2007) and the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) Inquiry in 2010-11.

This is no less ironic as the public overestimates how much businesses contribute and (considerably) underestimates how much individuals contribute. Although, in fairness, the knowledge that almost 50% of the financing of British parties is made up by (often large) individual donations is, perhaps, unlikely to quell public unease.

In fact, when it comes to party funding reform, we find ourselves in a situation in which policy recommendations are made – and put into manifestos – almost entirely based on public perceptions. Yet we also know this is a subject about which the public doesn’t really know much at all. Many experts also believe these perceptions to be mistaken – or at least exaggerated.

Where to from here?

TI suggest that their findings show that the ‘public want tougher controls on money in politics’. The solution proffered is to draw on the recommendations from the CSPL and cap donations at £10,000. The problem with this is the report entirely neglects to include the logical conclusion of this policy – as quoted on release of the CSPL report in 2011:

“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 public support.”

You simply cannot remove a large institutional form of funding and expect parties to get by. Although Labour party membership has positively ballooned (technical political science jargon) party subs still only account for 18% of Labour’s total 2015 income.

Yet state funding continues to be unpopular with the public. When the CSPL held focus groups on the subject of increasing public funds they described a particular journey respondents generally followed. There was an initial concern about donations followed by that concern increasing and state funding becoming viewed as acceptable.  However, when facing the reality of trade-offs between caps on donations and increased state funding there was quickly a decrease in acceptability and a reluctance to introduce a cap or indeed to increase state funding. That’s no solution at all.

This, if nothing else shows you that focus group researchers do God’s work. More importantly it shows that there is an essential collective action problem, a paradox at the centre of debates surrounding party funding. The public by-and-large detest the current system – but aren’t willing to pay for it to change.

Further muddying the water is that there’s little evidence that reforms would have the desired effect. A cap on donations, for example, may or may not significantly reduce the risk of corruption, but it is even less likely to make a difference to perceptions of corruption.

As the report suggests a mistrust in politicians and the current political order is not unique to Britain, it is a (at the very least) Europe-wide phenomena. Significant state subsidisation is the norm on the continent.

As the public have little knowledge of how party funding works (and to be fair, that in and of itself is not unreasonable; Joe Bloggs has other things to worry about) it is unlikely that such reforms will work. Especially if framed as a panacea for both political disaffection and political misbehaviour. This makes it all the more perplexing that recommendations and policy reform lean so heavily on public opinion.

Any report that attempts to put party funding reform at the front and centre of public debate outside of a perceived episode of political malfeasance should be lauded. The problem TI have is that they fail to grasp a question that has foxed policy makers (and academics) for decades. What do you do when the voters are wrong?

Sam Power

University of Sussex