Public backing is critical to the success of anticorruption reform efforts. Yet communications intended to mobilize the public against corruption often backfire, making audiences less engaged and less confident the problem can be solved. To better understand this problem, the Open Society Foundations recently sponsored an international research effort led by the Topos Partnership to better understand how residents of three countries—the United States, North Macedonia, and Brazil—think about corruption in the public sphere, and how best to engage them in efforts to combat the problem. In each country, ethnographers spoke at length with roughly 150 people, followed by internet surveys testing different kinds of messages.
Not surprisingly, findings across the countries are distinct in various interesting ways. Macedonians, for example, often have a sense that their country lags behind other European countries, and they may also look back nostalgically at the Yugoslav era when things seemed to run more predictably. Brazilians see themselves as being culturally averse to rigid rules and procedures, including those that keep government “honest.” The U.S. public has a strong sense that government is supposed to be by and for the people. But despite these important differences, there are also important similarities across the three countries.
Perhaps most notably, in all three countries the public tends to be hopeless and fatalistic about whether government is ever really focused on the public good. Instead, they see government as a set of powerful elites running things for their own benefit. On this prevailing cynical view, governments are generally “corrupt” in a broad sense—one that has little to do with narrow conceptions of legality; governments are corrupt in the sense that they do not actually work on behalf of the people, who get by as best they can despite, not thanks to, government.
This widespread view helps explain why anticorruption advocacy so often hits a brick wall or makes things worse. If corruption is the rule rather than the exception—if governments are composed of hypocritical leaders looking out for themselves—then there is no way to fix the system through the kinds of reforms that anticorruption activists typically advocate. On this view, the only meaningful improvements would come from throwing all the rascals out or smashing the whole rotten system. But even that might not be enough, because the next set of leaders are likely to be no better.
Overcoming this cynicism requires a fundamental shift in anticorruption discourse and communications—from a “crime and punishment” mode to a “guardrails for good government” mode. A “crime and punishment” mode of communication emphasizes individual acts of (illegal) corruption and/or outrageous unethical practices (even if not illegal), in order to stoke public outrage and build pressure for punishment of the malefactors. But while this kind of discourse can be effective in mobilizing people in the short run, in the longer term the main effect of this mode of communication is to discourage people and reinforce their cynicism.
In contrast, a “guardrails for good government” mode of communication highlights pragmatic solutions. It focuses less on good and bad people, more on stories of building or strengthening key mechanisms (rules, processes, institutions, etc.) that have successfully put or kept government on track serving the public. The focus is less on stoking moral outrage over individual wrongdoing, and more on practicality and prevention. There may still be heroes or villains in these narratives, but moral assessments of individual actors are tied to how these individuals relate to the “guardrails”—do they build, support, and reinforce them, or attack and weaken them? To be clear, the need for individual accountability is not ignored or dismissed, but identifying the guilty is not treated as the core story.
Importantly, while effective “guardrails for good government” communications include at least one real-world success story, these communications do not purport to claim that government overall is doing its job well. Rather, the background assumption for the entire communication is that government must do better—and the new takeaway is that if we take the right steps, it can. In that way, this mode of communication can engage interest and boost optimism, rather than merely stoking outrage, which tends to sour into cynicism.
The success stories that have most impact vary from place to place: city councils that focus more on the public good, local health institutions offering better treatment, and so forth. In North Macedonia, one of these success stories focused on the creation of a smartphone app that publishes real-time air quality information, so that everyone can see how well pollution regulations are being enforced—and can call for action when they are not. But while the individual success stories vary, the core message these stories convey is essentially the same in all countries: We (only) get good government when the right structures are created, strengthened, and respected. This idea offers people hope where they previously had little or none, and can help mobilize them to advocate and support fundamental change over the long term.