Remember that childhood game, you say a word over and over and it seems to lose its meaning and just dissolves into a melodic sound? I feel similarly about trying to slice up the umbrella concept of corruption and sort it into practical, reasonably comprehensive, and distinctive subcategories – an endeavor that usually gets out of hand, consumes disproportionate amounts of scarce thinking-time and energy, and eventually leaves the participants more confused and in disagreement than at the outset. Yet quite recently I have begun to change my mind a bit about the unproductiveness of typologizing (anti)corruption. In fact, I have begun to derive some surprising enjoyment and inspiration from playing around with different ways to look at and classify different types of (anti)corruption. Here three examples:
- First vs. second/higher order information asymmetries: One can distinguish among the different types of information problems that may characterize a specific form of corruption, in order to design more effective interventions. First order asymmetries are about differing information levels and thus different abilities of principals and agents to judge whether (for example) a contract has been honored or service has been rendered as agreed. Second or higher order information asymmetries pertain to a more complex situation where neither principals nor agents may know what the other side or their peers actually know and can thus help identify challenges such as situations of pluralistic ignorance (when peers do not have full knowledge about and cannot sanction what their peers think or do – and thus plot a self-centered course of action). Both information asymmetries can co-exist. More practically, considering both first and higher order information asymmetries and assessing specific corruption problems accordingly can help design more effective interventions to tackle them, for example when the number of people deciding to take action against corruption and complain to a hotline are made visible in aggregates and thus provide testament to the groundswell of individual opposition and thus make the seeding of collective action or proactive compliance more likely.
- Private vs. public harm: One can distinguish between private vs. public harms that result from specific types of corruption, in order to identify new funding strategies. Being hauled over by a corrupt police office for the sole purpose of extracting a bribe is first and foremost a private harm that directly hurts the citizen. Having a corrupt mayor that colludes with a contractor to overprice a public contract and steal the surplus is an act of corruption that primarily causes public harm, as it hurts the community budget. Using this prism of private vs. public harm may help identify different challenges, and new opportunities for funding anticorruption interventions. The risk of individual harm, for example, might be insurable (how about a micro-insurance for legal aid in the case of extortionate corruption?) whereas the risk of pubic harm may lead to collective good financing strategies, e.g. thinking about inviting in a social entrepreneur that could help produce and capture the value of the public good and share some of the gains with the community (e.g. a forensic accountant that is paid a share of stolen money that she helped to recover). I have elaborated more on some of these business model ideas here.
- Risk vs. uncertainty. One can distinguish between between situations in which corrupt actors face the risk of detection and situations in which they are uncertain as to whether they will be detected.In this context, drawn from Frank Knight’s classic treatment, “risk” refers to situations in which the range of possible outcomes is known and their respective likelihoods can be reasonably well estimated, while “uncertainty” refers to a situation where neither all possible outcomes nor their probability are well understood. How could this matter for anticorruption? This might actually be a useful distinction when trying to gauge the effect, relative desirability, and complementary nature of the mandated, rule-based information disclosure associated with “open government” practices vs. the effects of a flurry of massive-scale data leakages that, as unpredictable as they are individually in focus and timing, do seem as a whole to represent an enduring new trend and additional, albeit very different driver of openness. Deliberately designed and predictably implemented, conventional disclosure rules, such as new provisions to disclose lobbying practices, are more like a risk that can be managed. This type of prescribed transparency may help to eradicate some corrupt practices since they become too easy to detect and do not pay off any more, while keeping others with higher returns and still positive expected values on the playbook and also enticing the proactive search for loopholes and new practices to avoid the predictable spotlight of disclosure. In contrast to this risk management situation, massive, sudden, unpredictable data leaks however are an entirely different phenomenon. They are much more difficult to calculate with and fold into conventional approaches to risk management. How should a potentially corrupt actor behave when all its communications with governments foreign or domestic during the last two decades could end up in the public limelight, perhaps not even released not by a senior co-conspirator in the know, but by a low level disgruntled system administrator or some outside hacker or IT provider? How does this new vulnerability to “catastrophic” blanket exposure impact upon the corruption game and the prospects for integrity in the longer run? How can policies help shape this new calculus in favour of integrity? I have no answers, but it strikes me that these are very interesting questions to explore. And a risk vs. uncertainty perspective on different drivers of openness can serve as a good starting point for this journey.
To be clear: none of these three mini-typologies comes with any kind of ambition to help classify the immensely diverse (anti)corruption space in any kind of comprehensive or clear-cut manner. Yet, they help cut through some part of the thicket of (anticorruption) concepts and offer some rather interesting vantage points for further explorations.