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Every year the global economy loses billions to corruption. Measures to combat it have a mixed track record.

Corruption erodes faith in democracy. : Meiling/Flickt CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Corruption erodes faith in democracy. : Meiling/Flickt CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every year the global economy loses billions to corruption. Measures to combat it have a mixed track record.

Australia will roll out a new national anti-corruption body after legislation promised at the country’s last federal election passed parliament. It paves the way for investigations of corruption on a Commonwealth level, including by ministers and parliamentarians.The legislation comes after Australia recorded its worst ever score on an index that ranks anti-corruption measures worldwide.Every year the global economy loses at least five percent of gross domestic product to corruption. It’s a problem that hampers every continent.

At its worst it hinders development, takes money away from public health and plunders humanitarian aid. In less obvious ways it taints democracy when people lose faith in elected officials.

The UN marks International Anti-corruption Day every year on December 9 in an effort to encourage global collaboration on tackling corruption.

Meanwhile, researchers around the world continue to test anti-corruption efforts to better understand what works and what doesn’t. Evidence in three areas shows those seeking to combat corruption are sometimes investing in the wrong things. 

Focus on prevention as much as detection and prosecution

Janet Ransley, professor and director of the Griffith Criminology Institute, says while much of the public discussion about Australia’s new National Anti-Corruption Commission has been about its scope and powers to detect and investigate bad behaviour, corruption is notoriously hard to detect and harder still to investigate and prosecute.
“There is clear evidence that deterrence is only likely when consequences are swift and certain, neither of which is common with corruption cases.”

Ransley says a different approach could prevent corruption from happening in the first place but few anti-corruption agencies spell out their corruption prevention strategy,

“The Australian approach to corruption prevention is ad hoc and fragmented, with a lower profile and resourcing than that for investigations.”

There is evidence to support five prevention strategies: increase the effort required to commit corruption by improving physical and digital controls or safeguards; increase the risk of detection  by regular audits and integrity testing and better whistleblower protection; reduce rewards by imposing contract or authority limits on staff; and promote integrity by having clear and unambiguous rules and support; and better awareness of consequences.

Be careful with awareness campaigns

Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and Caryn Peiffer, lecturer in international public Policy and governance at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, say while almost all programmes designed to reduce graft in high corruption countries include an ‘awareness raising’ component, such campaigns can backfire.

“The idea is that through raising awareness about an issue, citizens will become more willing to reject requests for bribes and act against corruption.

“But until the last five years, no one had systematically tested whether these messages were effective. When researchers started to look into this, they got a nasty surprise: in most cases anti-corruption messages don’t make citizens more likely to reject or condemn graft.”

Worse still, the effect of the messaging was the opposite of what was intended.

One study in Costa Rica found those who received an anti-corruption message were on average more likely to pay a bribe.

The researchers say before embarking on awareness-raising campaigns policymakers could try and design less problematic messages. 

“One way to do this may be by focusing on those who behave ‘appropriately’, and the negative feelings people hold about those who do not, rather than highlighting the extent of the problem.”

They could also emphasise “the strength of feeling within society and the number of people who want to see change” to “inspire and motivate rather than depress and discourage”.

Make government more transparent

Zareh Ghazarian, political scientist in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, says publishing the diaries of government ministers; requiring cabinet documents be released immediately; and enacting truth in political advertising laws are three measures that can improve integrity in politics.

In some jurisdictions, for example, records such as minutes of Cabinet meetings may be withheld for up to 30 years. 

“On the one hand, this is understandable,” says Ghazarian. “Cabinet meetings are where ministers often have frank debates in order to determine policies that may have significant impact on the direction of the state. But locking these insights into government decision-making away for decades is a hindrance on transparency.”

New Zealand introduced a proactive release policy in 2019 to overcome these challenges, requiring government bodies to release “material being considered by Cabinet” within 30 days.

Read and republish the articles covered in this report:

Australia’s fight against corruption risks failure
Janet Ransley, Griffith University
When fighting official corruption, prevention can be the cure. But what does that look like?

To change corrupt behaviour, change the message
Nic Cheeseman, University of Birmingham and Caryn Peiffer, University of Bristol
Telling people not to do something because everybody’s doing it will often backfire.

Political integrity doesn’t require a radical shakeup
Zareh Ghazarian, Monash University
Victoria’s newly-elected parliament will have a mandate to address growing concerns of integrity and transparency. Here’s what it could do immediately.

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