Corruption-plagued countries often create independent anticorruption agencies (ACAs) to ensure the integrity of other institutions. But sometimes ACAs get caught up in their own scandals—scandals that can undermine their credibility and hard-won public trust. ACAs may be particularly at risk because of the threat they pose to powerful elites, who will always be on the lookout for ways to undercut ACAs. Of course, ACAs should be attuned to these risks and to put measures in place to minimize them. But no preventative system is perfect. What to do when it fails? When an ACA’s reputation has been besmirched by an internal corruption scandal, what can the agency do to restore public trust?
Ghana’s experience may offer some lessons. In 2008, Ghana established the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), which is responsible for anticorruption enforcement, among other things. CHRAJ has done much good work, from conducting investigations of corruption allegations to producing conflict-of-interest guidelines and a code of conduct. But in 2011, the CHRAJ was rocked by an internal scandal when it was revealed that Lauretta Lamptey, then chief of the CHRAJ, had misappropriated public funds to renovate her official residence, to pay hotel bills, and to upgrade her air tickets. The scandal “dented the image of the CHRAJ both nationally and internationally” and jeopardized public trust in the CHRAJ and the willingness of Ghanaian citizens to report corruption cases to the commission.
Damage control was absolutely crucial—and seems to have been largely successful. According to the US State Department’s Ghana 2016 Human Rights Report, public confidence in the CHRAJ is again high. The CHRAJ’s relative success in restoring credibility after its internal corruption scandal suggests a few guidelines for how an ACA can respond effectively in this sort of situation:
- First, welcome an independent investigation and be transparent about the results. When an internal corruption scandal at an ACA comes to light, the ACA should promptly call for an independent investigation to be conducted either by an independent commission entrusted with broad investigative power, or by a separate agency with the requisite investigative expertise. On top of writing up a thorough analysis of the facts of the particular case, the investigator’s report should also identify the broader practices and institutional weaknesses that put the ACA at risk. In the Ghana case, an independent five-member committee set up by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court conducted a thorough investigation of Lamptey. Eight months after the scandal, the committee report was submitted to the President, who later acted to remove Lamptey from office. The process was not without flaws: Despite the objections of civil society groups like the Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII), the committee’s report was never published. (Fortunately, many details of the investigations were nevertheless made their way to the public anyway.)
- Second, design and implement a meaningful remediation plan – and do so proactively. After a scandal, the ACA must install new internal controls and accountability measures. The agency should do so voluntarily, rather than waiting until it is forced to do so by overwhelming public or political pressure, as voluntariness signals sincerity and genuine commitment. The earlier the ACA pushes ahead with internal reforms, the more effectively it will help the ACA to regain its credibility. In Ghana’s case, the CHRAJ clarified, and committed to strictly enforcing, its Code of Conduct for Public Officers; CHRAJ also made internal restructuring and reorganization one of the items on the reform agenda in its Strategic Plan 2011 -2015. During this process of reform, it’s important for the ACA to engage with its own staff to ensure that its new internal compliance programs are feasible for employees, as overly stringent rules can be counterproductive. In the Plan, CHRAJ has adopted an “ADKAR Model” (awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement) to make sure changes would be implemented in an “orderly, controlled and systematic fashion with minimum resistance and maximum support from the Commission’s staff.” Staff should know why a specific change is needed, be motivated to facilitate the changes, know how to participate in making the changes happen, be trained to acquire the necessary new skills allowing changes to take place, and to be monitored and evaluated such that changes can be maintained.
- Third, do not hesitate to fire key officials if doing so is warranted – but resist the temptation to scapegoat one or two “bad apples.” Firing top officials risks bad press in the short term, but can be an important step forward on the path toward redemption. (In Ghana, as noted earlier, the CHRAJ suspended Lamptey from office following the public outcry, and after the special investigation described above, she was fired.) At the same time, the ACA should resist the temptation to scapegoat individual officials in ways that imply a failure to acknowledge more general institutional weaknesses, simply to quell public outrage.
- Finally, the ACA should continue reminding the public of the agency’s raison d’etre. The public’s support of the ACA’s mandate is the foundation of its comeback. People who lose faith in their ACA do not necessarily lose their belief in the ACA’s mission. If the breach of trust is presented as controllable and not without remedies, and when the agency has demonstrated the political will to reform, citizens won’t desert the institution. ACAs can engage with people through workshops, educational campaigns, training programs, and other avenues in order to remind people of the ACA’s mission and demonstrate the agency’s commitment to reform. In Ghana, the CHRAJ engaged directly with citizens at the community level, reminding them of the role of CHRAJ, and how they as citizens could report corruption, lodge complaints, and to get access to legal services.
Even though ACAs may themselves sometimes be hit hard by corruption scandals, the resulting loss of legitimacy and public trust is not beyond repair – as demonstrated by Ghana’s CHRAJ. Fast and targeted damage control accompanied by long-term remediation plan can help an ACA rocked by scandal to bounce back.