State-Level Anticorruption Commissions: What the U.S. Can Learn from Australia’s Model

Australia does not currently have a dedicated national-level anticorruption agency (ACA), though the question of whether to create one has been on the table since 2014 (see here, here, and here). Yet Australia has plenty of experience with ACAs—at the state level. Australia’s first, and still most prominent, state-level ACA was the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in New South Wales (the state including financial capital Sydney), which will mark its thirtieth anniversary next year. The ICAC, led by an independent commissioner, has independent investigatory powers over almost all state-level government officials and is charged with both exposing public sector corruption and educating the public about corruption. Queensland and Western Australia followed suit with their Corruption and Crime Commissions, established in their current forms in 2001 and 2003 respectively. The states of Victoria, South Australia, and tiny Tasmania all instituted independent agencies in recent years as well. Even the 250,000-strong Northern Territory resolved to start its own ACA after several high-profile scandals, and the Australian Capital Territory (the Canberra-sized equivalent of Washington, DC) has discussed creating its own anticorruption body. The permeation of Australia with state-level agencies is essentially complete.

Thus, in true laboratories-of-democracy fashion, Australian states have tried, solidified, and publicized the model of creating an independent investigatory group focused on the issue of corruption. Could U.S. states do the same? Easily. Should they? Yes, for at least three reasons:

  • First, Australia’s experience demonstrates that a state- level ACA makes it easier for citizens to report corruption to the proper authorities. The New South Wales ICAC, for example, takes around 2,000-4,000 reports annually and offers telephone and online reporting portals. Other state-level ACAs in Australia offer similar reporting infrastructure and provide public education about how or when to report. In contrast, a U.S. citizen who wanted to report state-level corruption would have a much harder time figuring out where to go. Recent internet searches from a U.S. computer for “how to report corruption,” “report corruption [in X state],” “should I report corruption,” and similar terms yielded little of help to someone looking to blow the whistle on, say, a local school board or a state health inspector. Top results led to the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which focuses on major federal government scandals. A persistent searcher would eventually find a list of FBI hotlines, but how and what to report were not entirely clear. What’s more, why would a concern about a local or state government employee be reported to the federal FBI? Australia’s state commissions, by contrast, allow easy access and clear instructions on how to report corruption at all levels. (See examples for reporting instructions, advice, and forms from New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, and police corruption reporting under the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.)
  • Second, state-level ACAs allow specialization and development of expertise. States may face different corruption challenges depending on regional economies and cultures. In Australia, for example, Western Australia has a significant mining industry; New South Wales is home to finance and business in Sydney; and Queensland hosts the Great Barrier Reef, as well as other unique natural heritage sites. Corruption issues related to extractive industries, capital markets, and environmental preservation are distinct and might involve complicated abuses of permitting or licensure systems that investigative bodies would need to understand. The U.S. has similar, perhaps greater, diversity. For example, Chicago has struggled with construction-related and court corruption scandals, while New Jersey has had high-profile incidents of abuse-of-power by local officials garnering favors. Meanwhile, states like California might have grants and regulations of agriculture or environmental protection more enticing to a corrupt actor than similar versions elsewhere in the country. Specialized information collected by state-level ACAs can give a clearer picture of the problems of corruption in that area. The New South Wales ICAC Annual Report breaks down the complaints it receives and develops a list of the biggest problem sectors in the state (with transit, education, and health topping the list in 2015-16). What’s more, a state ACA can develop a picture of where and how corruption concerns arise most frequently. The ICAC Annual Report shows that development or zoning applications were one of the biggest problem areas, according to citizen complaints. In the U.S., states and cities may have Inspectors General to oversee the running of state government generally, and large states and federal government agencies may have Inspectors General to investigate problems within specific programs, yet neither arrangement offers the possibility to focus on corruption or to compare information across government sectors.
  • Third, state-level ACAs can garner more trust from citizens as well as increasing overall trust in state and local government accountability. Having a clear pipeline to make corruption concerns heard is a first step. The responsibilities of the agency also shed clear light on the steps being taken to address those corruption concerns. Assuaging apprehension for whistleblowers may be particularly salient for those reporting law enforcement or judiciary corruption—knowing a body is independent and tasked solely with corruption-related concerns portrays a separation of the investigators and investigated that is not so apparent when reporting to the legal system, or to department-specific Inspectors General. Even Australia’s model has been adjusted to offer more independence: while the earliest ACA in New South Wales does not have jurisdiction to investigate police corruption, other state anticorruption agencies do.

This is not to say that state-level ACAs can or should be the only sole or even primary corruption investigators. Australia has also used Royal Commissions (a type of ad hoc investigatory body) to examine special weaknesses in the public sector, including a recent one probing the building industry. Australia’s Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity separately examines the police. And “state-level” may look different in the U.S., given that several U.S. states are much larger than their Australian counterparts—the nearly-$500 billion economy in Australia’s biggest state economy (New South Wales) is matched by ten U.S. states. While the number of large cities in the U.S. might mean local efforts are also important, the relatively higher levels of public sector spending and employment in Australia could make smaller state economies more comparable to the needs of larger U.S. states.

Of course, the creation of state-level ACAs may have some drawbacks, including coordination problems and variation in effectiveness. Indeed, Transparency International last year came out in support of federal-level anticorruption work in Australia after noting the significant discrepancies between and differences in quality of state agency initiatives. Yet the current U.S. mechanisms for addressing corruption already involve these differences in quality, including numerous agencies and law enforcement bodies choosing differing paths and priorities. Separating out corruption-focused investigators in the U.S. could make information sharing and coordination on corruption-specific issues more manageable.

In the U.S., most political issues are confronted on a multitude of platforms—federal, state, local, even county-level policy bodies. Corruption complaints are widespread at each level, but states have not chosen to separate out those corruption concerns for sustained and specialized focus. State legislatures could and should create Australian-style ACAs as one way to respond to citizen calls for action. Legislators might have plenty of reason to be reluctant to create an agency with the power to investigate the legislators themselves, but where voters are sufficiently angry about corruption in the public sector, a state-level investigative body could offer a straightforward way to earn trust.

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