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Anti-corruption and open societies

Article by Phil Mason

October 19, 2021

Anti-corruption and open societies

It is not by accident that the most common metaphor in anti-corruption is the contention that ‘sunlight is the best of disinfectants’. It was popularised by soon-to-be US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis in a 1914 treatise on the importance of openness in public affairs.[1] Since then, shining a spotlight on the doings of those who are in positions of power has been the idea central to strategies for tackling corruption.


Openness and anti-corruption go hand in hand. In some societies, corruption became defined by its very antithesis to openness. According to an Africanist colleague, in Mali they had no term for corruption. It was simply said to be ‘a gift that is given in the dark’.


It is no accident either that in standard models of what constitutes ‘good government’, the notion of openness dominates. DFID’s seminal 2006 White Paper Making Governance Work for the Poor put forward three attributes: Capability (the ability to get things done); Accountability (the expectation that citizens should have the means, and be able, to judge the performance of their government); and Responsiveness (the expectation that governments should respond to the needs and rights of their citizens).[2] This CAR lens remains the simplest and most concise statement of what is needed for effective governance. And the last two are all about the openness of the relationship between rulers and ruled.


We also see strong evidence for a positive correlation between open societies and the low prevalence of corruption. For any metric there is about ‘good’ government, whether it be the measure of the quality of public administration and service delivery, the competitive fairness of elections, the accessibility to justice, the respecting of human rights or, indeed, the very peacefulness and stability of the society itself, there is always a direct connection. The ‘better’ the quality of government, the lower corruption tends to be.


The inaugural publication in 2021 of the Good Government Index, from the Chandler Institute of Governance, illustrates this linkage well.[3] Offering one of the broadest assessments of state attributes – 34 separate indicators – the Index finds that the single one that most strongly mirrors a country’s overall ranking on the Index is how it fares on anti-corruption. In other words, it is almost guaranteed that where government works better, corruption is lower. And as we see from the CAR principles, openness is key to that good governance.


Exposing corruption

The most common approach for exposing corruption focuses on directly searching out corrupt practice. There are then efforts to punish it alongside ‘prevention’ actions that identify specific weaknesses in systems that allow the practice to occur and devise controls specifically to stop them.


This has become the preferred orthodoxy for anti-corruption practitioners, especially international donors offering help to developing countries. This often leads to the writing, and passing, of legislation outlawing corruption and the creation of specific enforcement institutions – anti-corruption commissions – with mandates to search it out and prosecute it. Donors have queued up to provide the technical training and kit these institutions require.


Yet, after nearly 30 years of doing this, the general consensus is that few countries have made much headway through this approach. Dozens of, for the most part dysfunctional, anti-corruption agencies lie strewn across the globe. Too often they have been expertly neutered by the very forces they are set up to confront, or by an ineffective justice system. Worse, some have been used by the incumbent power to pursue vendetta against political opponents.


This dispiriting lack of success has led to questions about the validity of a ‘direct’ strategy of this kind. A second, emerging, view places greater importance on the strengthening of the surrounding governance environment. It suggests that to secure gains against corruption we need to think more strategically and indirectly.


Clues about what this means can be found in the history of how societies have transformed in the past. A celebrated study by Swedish political scientist Bo Rothstein of how his own country transitioned in the nineteenth century from a ‘thoroughly corrupt’ society to its modern form, with its reputation for low corruption, resonates extraordinarily closely with the modern concepts of what it is to be an ‘open society’.[4]


The reforms themselves were not directed at corruption itself. They aimed, rather, to open up Swedish society, to make the organs and processes of government (in CAR terms) more accountable and more responsive to the citizenry (and at the same time more capable by ensuring, for example, that public post holders merited, not simply bought, their appointments). In doing all this, corruption shrivelled away.


More than 20 reforms opened up the management of public functions to merit-based appointees, their endeavours subjected to increased public scrutiny through both greater official oversight –

by the creation of new levels of regional and local governance – and from an increasingly better informed public through access to an unrestricted media and universal education.


Of greatest importance, according to Rothstein, was how ‘the whole idea of what it meant to be a civil servant changed’. The creation of an ethos of public service seems to have been core to eventual success. A post in public office ceased to be considered – by the post holders themselves and, crucially, by the expectations of the wider public – as a possession for extracting personal benefits.


The picture is a stark contrast to current practitioner orthodoxy that lays all its bets on writing ever more sophisticated rules and regulations against corruption and constructing institutions to go and hunt for malpractice. Rather than such explicit anti-corruption actions ‘cleaning up’ bad institutions, the reduced corruption in nineteenth century Sweden essentially turns out to have been a by-product of structural reforms that opened up Swedish society. More recent examples have been identified that also show the same phenomenon, in countries as varied as Chile, Costa Rica, Estonia and Taiwan, with corruption falling off as the effect of other systemic changes.[5]


New pathways

This is a powerful signal that our current approach against corruption, overly-focused on directly attacking it through law enforcement, is not enough. While there should be continued effort at direct efforts to expose and punish corruption, embracing an ‘open societies’ perspective could help extricate ourselves from the current position where ground seems to be being lost. Such an approach opens up possibilities of less explicit routes to solving the problem.


An open societies perspective could be based on three strategic foundations: improving accessibility (the openness to all of state perquisites and services); civic voice (empowering people in their relationship with their governments by increasing the sense of obligation of those in power to take account of public sentiment); and accountability (the obligations owed by authority to its people).



The concept of increasing accessibility must embrace both state functions themselves and the availability of information about those functions. It means, for example, ensuring that the recruitment to the public service is by open competition, impartially managed and with appointments based on merit. It also means cultivating a strong ethos of public service.[6]


Access to publicly-funded contracts should similarly be based on open competition, with procurement opportunities widely advertised, assessment criteria published and the results of contract awards published.[7] Transparency can be further augmented by systems for divulging the beneficial ownership of companies, including property holding in the company’s name, and any contributions that they make to the financing of party politics. There is convincing evidence, also, that using open digital platforms to manage public procurement has led to better outcomes both in terms of opening up access to a wider pool of potential suppliers and by improving value for money.[8]


The release of information about state finances, along with processes that enable meaningful public scrutiny, is another cornerstone as is the disclosure of relevant information about public officials, especially government ministers and members of parliament, that help to identify potential conflicts between public function and private interests.[9]


For the vast majority of countries, a lack of openness about the cost of party political financing is a significant barrier against exposing corruption as well as restricting access to political office itself, as the work by WFD on the ‘cost of politics’ shows.[10] The high outlays required of individuals not only excludes large swathes of potential candidates from competing for elected office but those who do succeed often find themselves looking to corruption to recoup their costs while in office. At the organisation level, the financing of political parties through private sector donations not only offers direct opportunities for private interests to influence public sector decision-making, but also provides strong incentives for those contributors to seek to recover their costs through corruption.


Civic voice

Enabling a strong civic voice to influence and shape how public affairs are conducted is crucial to overcoming the impunity of officialdom that characterises high corruption environments – the belief that there will be no consequences from being corrupt. A public that is able to bring about a consequence for corrupt behaviour becomes an interest group that those holding (or seeking) public office need to take account of.


Creating an environment where consequences follow exposure of corruption is a long term endeavour. It is about constructing feedback loops, for example, between citizens and their administrators, through direct remedy approaches such as ombudsman offices, or indirectly through their parliamentary representatives. The use of parliamentary structures for citizen engagement on anti-corruption is often underdeveloped and could be making a stronger contribution, for example through ensuring key committees conduct their work in public, by bringing research and analysis more systematically to the attention of parliamentarians, and developing stronger media coverage of parliament and its relevance to public affairs.[11] The ambition is to reach a norm such that the corrupt incur political disadvantage.[12]



Arguably, parliament also sits at the heart of the third and final theme, accountability. Most obviously, ensuring the integrity of elections is key, including the fraught questions around campaign financing. But while significant attention is frequently paid to these, much less tends to be given to the workings of parliament itself as the national cockpit, the intersection of authority with its public.


It is in parliament, especially through its scrutiny role, that accountability can be embodied in actual practice. Most formal institutions of oversight – Auditors-General, Inspectorates and other Regulators, and independent commissions such as those for Anti-Corruption and Human Rights – usually report to it. By strengthening both the capacities of these bodies to undertake their assessments of state functioning and the parliamentary processes that can be used to give airings to their findings and recommendations, practical effect can be given to their work. The working relationship between parliaments and independent oversight institutions is crucial. Granting and ensuring the independence of such institutions, both through legal status and practical financial autonomy, is a vital function of parliaments. Ensuring competent leadership of these bodies, and giving effect to their reports and findings are also pivotal roles. WFD has developed guidance that provides a clear practical pathway to creating a strong symbiotic relationship.[13] Consequences can then flow from discovered corruption, and deterrence can be built against future misbehaviour.


A way forward

Current donor support for anti-corruption, focusing as it does predominantly on direct law enforcement training, finds itself in a cul-de-sac. A fresh perspective is required, and both targets and methods need to change.


While not completely abandoning support for the technical requirements of law enforcers, it is vital to see such work as just one part of a broader effort against corruption. Enforcement action against individual occurrences of corruption is only part of the solution. On its own it cannot change the fundamentals that drive and sustain corruption in the first place.


Historical evidence points to the positive anti-corruption effects of openness in its multifarious forms. The barriers such openness creates against being able to be corrupt tackle the heart of the current shortcomings of practitioners. For these routes to prevention are about more than simple knowledge about how to combat corruption, conveyed in technical training courses and recognised with diplomas and certificates; they are about understanding, and reshaping, the motivations and incentives that underlie corruption, in order to foster different behaviour.



  1. Strengthen assistance that is focused on building social capital that can challenge authority and demand accountability. Where space for civic action is under threat, support is explicitly needed to protect it, including action to safeguard those who seek to defend human rights and pursue the exposure of corruption.
  2. Think innovatively about the institutions capable of influencing anti-corruption in society particularly those that (i) can shape public attitudes to social norms regarding corruption and (ii) that can add anti-corruption to their existing areas of attention (for example, national human rights commissions; bodies and associations overseeing professional standards in areas such as the public service, law and accountancy, and the media). How such bodies can become more independent of the incumbent power is a crucial dimension to address.
  3. Supplement the current orthodoxy of technical training focused on investigating and prosecuting corruption with more politically-informed support aimed at identifying the incentives that drive behaviour and designing measures to disincentivise this behaviour. Political economy analysis is vital to revealing the underlying dynamics that help to sustain corruption in spite of increased knowledge and training that has been provided over decades on how to combat it.
  4. Support for ensuring the integrity of elections, election campaigning, and reducing the cost of politics, combined with strengthening the constructive role of parliaments in combatting corruption and strengthening integrity policies, including through corruption proofing of legislation, stronger use of parliamentary committees for oversight of the executive and inclusive and strengthened interaction between parliaments and other stakeholders, such as independent oversight institutions and civil society.
  5. Donors providing external assistance need to align their modes of practice with the time cycles of those they seek to help. Too often, assistance is given in packets that are too small, too narrowly focused and for too short a duration to be realistically able to effect long-term change. Adopting more flexible, iterative approaches to programming where the effects of interventions are quickly identified and absorbed rapidly, enabling changes to be introduced in response, is critical since those pursuing corrupt gains have been shown to be highly skilled at adapting themselves to keep ahead of controls. As a minimum, UK should extend its planning and delivery horizons to reflect the long-term nature of change that is being supported, and restore the ten-year programming frameworks previously used by DFID.


Phil Mason is an independent anti-corruption specialist. He was senior anti-corruption adviser in the UK Department for International Development from 2000 until 2019. He served in the UK public service for 35 years, 31 of them in DFID and its forerunner the Overseas Development Administration. He was awarded an OBE in 2016 for services to the UK’s international anti-corruption policy.


[1] Brandeis, Louis (1914). Other People’s Money And How the Bankers Use It. New York: Frederick A Stokes (opening a chapter entitled ‘What Publicity Can Do’).

[2] DFID, Eliminating world poverty: making governance work for the poor,, July 2006,

[3] Chandler Good Government Index, The Chandler Good Government Index 2021,

[4] Rothstein, Bo (2011). Anti-corruption: the indirect ‘big bang’ approach, Review of International Political Economy, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 228-250 (23 pages),

[5] Mungiu-Pippidi, A., Johnston, M., and Dana, C.A. (2017). Transitions to Good Governance: Creating Virtuous Circles of Anti-Corruption. Elgar Publishing. Analysed at

[6] This is to be distinguished from mere ‘ethics’ training, a popular approach to cultivating better attitudes in public officials but which often barely scratches the surface of the requirements of a ‘public service ethos’.)

[7] The Open Contracting Partnership offers support on all aspects of open procurement, see website:

[8] Such as the Prozorro system in Ukraine, see website: 

[9] Initiatives supporting such efforts include the International Budget Partnership which brings together civil society, media and parliamentarians to improve budget openness and analysis, see website:; the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency which supports dialogue between governments, civil society and other stakeholders on key elements of budgetary accountability, see website:; and the Open Government Partnership assists governments to build a culture of openness of public administration, see website:

[10] WFD, Cost of Politics,

[11] Phil Mason, Rethinking strategies for an effective parliamentary role in combatting corruption, WFD, April 2021,; and Heather Marquette, Doing anti-corruption democratically, WFD, May 2021,

[12] The parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 in the UK, for example, resulted in only a handful of criminal prosecutions but around one third of the entire membership of the House of Commons decided not to contest their seats again at the General Election the following year because of the reputational damage caused to them by the public outcry.

[13] Jonathan Murphy and Franklin De Vrieze, Independent oversight institutions: a guide for parliaments, WFD, March 2020,; and Franklin de Vrieze & Luka Glušac, Combatting Corruption Capably – assessment framework on parliament’s interaction with anti-corruption agencies, WFD, November 2020,

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