One of the big challenges in anticorruption work, which I suspect we will be discussing quite a bit on this blog, concerns the measurement of corruption. After all, there are a bunch of different theories about the causes and consequences of corruption, and about the best way to combat it. Testing these theories requires some way of measuring the extent of corruption (or different forms of the corruption problem). And for folks actually doing anticorruption work (donors, governments, NGOs, etc.), it would be nice to be able to assess how well programs are working. Yet all of the existing measures have significant problems.
To try to inspire some creative thinking about new ways to measure corruption, the good people at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resources Centre (affiliated with the Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway), with the assistance of the UK’S Department for International Development (DFID), recently sponsored a competition (the “Proxy Challenge”) to come up with new proxies that would help track the progress of anticorruption reform initiatives. U4 hosted a one-day workshop last month to let the five finalists present their proxies, to choose a winner, and to promote some general discussion of the challenges of developing useful proxies for corruption in a variety of contexts. I was able to attend. I’ll try to post a some more substantive thoughts in a later post, but here are a few quick reactions.
First, I think this competition was a great idea, and I hope that U4 and DFID consider doing it again–perhaps advertising it more broadly, and maybe attaching a substantial award, rather than the lovely but largely ceremonial prize sculpture that the winners received (I think it was some kind of Norwegian duck sculpture). My sense is that this first attempt at running a Proxy Challenge was a bit disappointing: there were only a small number of total entries, and even some of the finalists didn’t really introduce fresh or creative approaches to measuring corruption, but rather deployed fairly conventional project evaluation methods (number of complaints successfully addressed, increases in government revenue, etc.) in new contexts.
Second, although not all the entries were equally strong, the winning entry, from Mihály Fazekas and István János Tóth of the Corruption Research Center Budapest (CRCB), is well worth a look, particularly for those working on corruption in public procurement. I won’t try to summarize the methodology here, but—long story short—the look at a set of 13 “risk factors” for corruption in public contracting (identified by their strong correlation with suspicious public contracts, such as those where one company always seems to win or where there’s very little actual competition despite the fact that there are several viable competitors out there), and then use those factors, weighted by their significance, to construct a “corruption risk index.” There’s more to it as well, but I’ll leave it to interested readers to check out the presentation itself, as well as the associated paper. (Two related CRCB working papers are available here and here.)
Finally, one thing that became quite obvious over the course of the discussions was the enormous gulf between the academic/researcher types and the policy/donor/program types on what makes a proxy valuable. I may do a separate post specifically on this topic, but it was quite striking how frustrated the practitioners seemed to get with the academics’ (perceived) preference for complex, data intensive measures, and at the same time how frustrated the academics got with the practitioner group’s (perceived) attraction to simple (crude?), easy-to-summarize metrics. Given that both groups seem genuinely committed to combating corruption, the cultural chasm was striking. But kudos to U4 for holding this event and attempting to bridge this gap.