What corruption means informs what and how anticorruption reformers reform.
Unfortunately, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) dodges this important issue by averaging together the responses from polls employing competing definitions of “corruption.” This is a problem because different types of corruption have different causes, have different effects, and require different types of remedies. Transparency International should disaggregate its index of perceived “corruption” into two distinct indices: one for perceptions of illegal corruption, and one for primarily legal (but distrust-generating) conduct, which could fairly be characterized as institutional corruption. This change would make the CPI more precise, better educating the press, public, and policymakers who rely on it.
According to Transparency International, the CPI “ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be.” While the reference to perceptions implicates Matthew’s “public opinion” definition of corruption, the CPI is constructed by averaging findings from thirteen polls employing disparate definitions of corruption, or leaving the term undefined. These polls ask different panels of experts (which might be problematic in its own right) a wide variety of questions. These questions all employ the term “corruption,” but its meaning varies quite considerably among them. By my count, these questions use four different definitions of corruption:
- A public-interest definition: asking “how common is diversion of public funds to companies, individuals or groups due to corruption?” and how often do officials use “public office for private gain?”
- A legal definition: inquiring about the extent to which illegal corruption is prosecuted and the prevalence of “bribing and corruption.”
- A public opinion definition (although in this case, the “public” are exclusively experts): having experts assess the extent of perceived “state capture by narrow vested interests,” “suspiciously close ties between politics and business,” and the excessiveness of “bureaucratic regulations,” all of which presumably decrease the public’s trust in government.
- Undefined: asking about the extent of “corruption” in the public sector, which might implicate any of the above three definitions.
In light of evidence that the answers to the above questions are highly correlated (demonstrated by a European Commission study), one might argue that the inconsistency of the definitions is irrelevant. However, the answers to the questions are far from perfectly correlated; in fact, as the EC study noted, “if the countries’ classifications in the thirteen sources were to be taken at face value . . . no country is classified as better off than another country on all common sources.” The EC study applauds this finding, stating that it shows that the CPI “reconciles” the differing definitions of corruption, but in fact the CPI does not “reconcile” these differences at all–it merely averages the scores, effectively splitting the difference between competing definitions. This is problematic because the methods for alleviating the different corruptions vary: preventing bribery-type behavior and “state capture by narrow vested interests” require different types of legislation. It is the difference between an anti-bribery law and a campaign finance bill.
Of course, when constructing an index one must always sacrifice some degree of nuance for simplicity. But the CPI could be substantially improved by distinguishing between perceptions of corruption that implicate (1) illegal, or close to illegal, conduct, and (2) legal, or mostly legal, conduct. Transparency International should classify the polls it already uses as falling into one category or the other, and ditch the polls that do not define corruption. This would preserve a relatively simple index, but still allow observers, journalists, and analysts to appreciate the distinction between very different types of “corruption”, which may have quite different manifestations and call for quite different policy responses.