How Parliaments can tackle corruption better

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How Parliaments can tackle corruption better

January 27th, 2020

In my first blog, I discussed our work at WFD that has looked at the experience of working with parliaments and parliamentarians on combating corruption.  We’ve found few successes.  In this piece, I set out some possible new ways that could be more successful.  

The reasons for the poor success rate so far are not clear-cut; but I suggest one significant factor is the underlying presumptions that have shaped the orthodox approaches to thinking about anti-corruption. That is, that the problem to be solved is to strengthen the controls and systems that should prevent corruption, and that to do this, all it takes is to acquire better knowledge and skills on how to do it.

Hence, we see the traditional menu of activities regularly sponsored by aid donors that consists almost exclusively of building ‘capacity’ in technical competence and the imparting of information and guidance.  The apparent lack of success with this method points to there being something important missing from the methods that virtually all assistance providers have to date followed.  

To state it boldly: corruption is not something that has ever been, or ever will be, solved simply by improved knowledge on how to tackle it. Yet this is the form that the preponderance of anti-corruption assistance takes – not just for parliaments, but across the anti-corruption landscape. (I have argued elsewhere why I think donors do this.)

We suggest the missing ingredient is not technical, but political.  Not locking horns with the political drivers of corruption fatally consigns much of the anti-corruption assistance effort to be more show than substance.  We suggest a new direction: basing anti-corruption influencing on incentives instead of knowledge.

The academic literature in this area throws up support for this new direction.  Numerous examples have been documented of positive change when parliamentary committees, such as Public Accounts Committees, are opened up to attendance by the public and media.  Suddenly there is a wider audience.  Parliamentarians feel they are under greater scrutiny.  Some might also feel, conversely, that they have new opportunities for gaining prominence in national affairs.

When civil society organisations have been allowed to submit information and research directly into the proceedings of parliament, this has led to greater impact of those proceedings.  And when such groups have been skilled in channelling public energy and disquiet around a particular corruption episode, parliamentarians and governments have often been forced to reform. 

These all suggest that parliamentary progress to strengthen anti-corruption might become more possible through helping to construct the right incentive structures in relation to parliamentarians – both negative (pressure) but also positive (opportunity). 

What could this look like?  We have developed a range of options for different settings and circumstances – some most workable where there are broadly open conditions where civil society is generally unrestricted, others where conditions are less free.  Some where the locus of action can be at the national level, others where energy might be better expended and more achieved at local or regional level, away from the national spotlight.

Strengthening a parliament’s own structures

We see a range of opportunities here, focused on shaping conditions such that committees have more incentive to be effective, through stronger working relations with outside interest groups on anti-corruption, and that codes of conduct and other measures that are meant to safeguard integrity are effective and enforced.  We see potential for parliaments to play a stronger role in collating and monitoring a country’s international obligations on anti-corruption, and for more open engagement with the public and media and ensuring that the work of Parliaments is better explained to citizens, creating the potential for a more aware public holding members more strongly to account.

Building the impact of external influencers

In other circumstances where parliament is currently less open, there may need to be greater effort at building a coherent demand side in relation to anti-corruption to exert pressure on parliamentarians.  This could aim at maximising the roles that civil society groups can play on anti-corruption – watchdog; think tank; advocate; organiser.  Active and attuned groups could be influential in being able to signal to society corruption-related issues, galvanise and channel public opinion and produce good information at the right time to influence political momentum. 

Influencing parliamentarians as constituency representatives

Ensuring that citizenry can actively influence their individual members is the most direct way of exerting pressure on members to perform their functions properly. There are several examples of successful local action, either at election time, pre-election (candidate selection) or post-election service where concerted community action can create the right incentives for members to act with integrity.  There are particular opportunities surrounding the management and use of Constituency Development Funds where these operate.

Focusing on the regional/municipality level

In circumstances where national level action might not be feasible there may still be opportunities locally.  We see opportunities to mobilise civic action around community grievances that could generate local success stories that could serve as exemplars for wider replication elsewhere in the country.

To avoid any doubt, it is important to stress that this angle of approach is not about throwing the technical assistance baby out with the bathwater.  The imparting of knowledge and skills still has a place, but we see it now set in a more conducive, more political context.  Rather than seeking merely to improve knowledge and awareness of how to combat corruption, we are seeking to shape the behaviours of actors by moulding the (largely political) incentives for (some of) them to change in favour of taking up an anti-corruption posture.

This is all very much ‘work-in-progress’.  If we have whetted any organisation’s appetite to want to work with us to delve further into how this might work in practice, WFD would be delighted to hear from you.

Phil Mason was senior anti-corruption adviser at the UK Department for International Development (DFID) from 2000 until March 2019 when he formally retired from the public service. He was commissioned by WFD to lead an appraisal of parliamentary approaches to anti-corruption. This blog post is part of a miniseries on our approach to anti-corruption.


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