Many of the recent woes and challenges of democracies worldwide—such as fading policy consensus, populist discontent, and widening equality gaps—have been fueled, at least in part, by corruption and unethical practices (not all of which are currently illegal). The Panama Papers and similar leaks have dented the reputation of elected politicians, established firms, and respected countries. Soon after their term in office, some public sector leaders have taken up lucrative posts and board memberships in banks, lobbying firms, and multinationals, leaving voters disillusioned about political integrity and the intertwinement of elite networks across sectors in society. Less visible but equally harmful can be the ways in which narrow interests seek to influence public decision-making for their own profit. Inequalities in access to policymaking processes, often reflecting inequalities in wealth and status, often lead to decisions that benefit and further empower those narrow interests, which exacerbates inequalities and fosters the perception of politics as unfair or illegitimate. Against the backdrop of widening income gaps between the rich and poor, the abuse of power leading to a concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people is a worrisome prospect.
As a result, these legal and illegal forms of influence peddling corrode the meanings and mechanisms of democracy itself. As Professor Mark Warren has argued, corruption can be described as duplicitous exclusion: corruption undermines democracy by excluding people from decisions that affect them and in which they expect to have a voice. When people lose confidence that public decisions are taken for reasons that are publicly available and justifiable, and that those in official positions take citizen views and interests seriously, they often become cynical, expecting duplicity in public speech. This tarnishes all public officials, whether or not they are corrupt. And when people are mistrustful of government, they are also cynical about their own capacities to act in favor of the public good. Elections, for too many citizens, become a way to reject traditional democratic values and practices.
There are no quick fixes or easy remedies to this dilemma, but there are two things that activists and reformers must emphasize:
- First, raising integrity standards in government, business, and society as a whole is now more important than ever. Integrity is essential for building strong institutions and assures citizens that the government is working in their interest, not just for the select few. Integrity is not just a moral issue, it is also about making economies more productive, public sectors more efficient, and societies and economies more inclusive. It is about restoring trust, not just in government, but in public institutions, regulators, banks, news media, and corporations. In this way, integrity can significantly boost inclusive growth and sustainable development, and keep the public interest at the center of the policymaking process. The new OECD Recommendation on Public Integrity presents a holistic approach to raising integrity standards in government and in society. The Recommendation provides policy makers with the blueprint for a public integrity strategy and shifts the focus from ad hoc integrity policies to a comprehensive, risk-based approach with an emphasis on cultivating a culture of integrity in government – including all branches and levels of government – and across the whole of society.
- Second, a process of deep democratization—one that empowers citizens to defend themselves and their interests by political means—is essential to increase inclusiveness and the range of political choices. Deep democratization is a gradual and multifaceted process involving economic and political participation and diversity, justice, and open processes of rulemaking, as well as institutional reforms. It also entails a rethinking of the relationship between democracies and markets. Democracy provides markets with an essential legitimate political base, social feedback, and set of justice-oriented rules and limits. That is necessary for the strong public and private institutions that we now more widely accept as essential. It is also crucial if citizens are to accept the processes and outcomes markets tend to create. The needed response is not just rule-making and enforcement, transparency, or political will, but rather reinvigorated democracy able to withstand pressures on the proper boundary between the public interest and the market, to offer real choices, and to earn real legitimacy. It took a few decades after 1945 to build a political order that did those things, and it will take a long and complicated effort to reinvent them now.
These and other issues will be on the agenda at the 2017 OECD Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum in Paris in two weeks, on March 30-31 at the OECD Conference Centre. The draft agenda and list of speakers is here, and readers are interested in joining the debate on policy capture, integrity standards, and democratization are encouraged to attend. (You can register here.)