Transparency International releases its 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index this January 25, and while many will welcome the attention it puts on corruption, for others release will mean nothing but headaches. They will spend that day and the days and perhaps weeks after trying to explain why their country’s score on the CPI has little or nothing to do with how well the country is doing in the fight against corruption.
For regulars in the corruption battle, this is common knowledge (distilled here, here, and here). They know the value of the CPI lies in the pressure release puts on governments to take the fight against corruption seriously – not in measuring the progress a government is making in the fight. But presidents, prime ministers, parliamentarians, and assorted national kibitzers don’t. Sporadic followers of the corruption issue, on January 25 they will read that their nation ranks worse on the CPI than some neighboring county, a rival, or Denmark, Norway, or Singapore. They will demand to know why. Or at least why efforts over the past year have not paid off in a better ranking.
Anticorruption agency staff and others on the frontline of their nation’s fight against corruption will then scramble to explain that the CPI measures perceptions not actual levels of corruption. If they get more than five minutes with senior leadership or are allowed to write more than a one-page memorandum, they may summarize the work showing how perceptions often diverge quite radically from actual levels of corruption; if they are really lucky, they may even be able to shoehorn an explanation of why the measures the government is taking to fight corruption are unlikely to have any effect on the nation’s CPI rating in the foreseeable future – i.e., the next election cycle or leadership change.
No part of my work has been more frustrating than trying to help dedicated public servants — committed to fighting corruption in their country and doing the best they can under circumstances — convince a nation’s leaders to stop obsessing on the country’s CPI rating. Summarizing the academic learning as clearly and concisely as I can has met with little success. At best I may have helped one country’s anticorruption agency stave off budget cuts because the nation had slipped a few points on its CPI rating. Maybe in a couple of others I helped in convincing the government of the day to include other, more meaningful indicators of their country’s progress in fighting corruption when judging the national effort.
I thus approached the release of this year’s ranking with dread, knowing there was little I could do to help the many honest, patriotic public servants I have worked with blunt the attacks on their efforts to curb corruption if their nation’s CPI score doesn’t match Norway’s or Denmark’s.
That’s when I came upon how Nigeria handled release of the 2020 CPI ranking.
Someone, somewhere in the government realized that a frontal assault on the methodological shortcomings of the CPI was not the most productive way to respond to critics’ claims that Nigeria’s 2020 rating showed it was doing little to fight corruption. That attacking the CPI because it did not incorporate into its aggregation techniques Bayesian inference using Gibbs sampling (here) was not likely to persuade the unpersuaded, nor garner media coverage equal to that the index’s release generates.
Instead of taking on the CPI directly, Nigeria used the release as a platform to tout what it had done in the past year to combat corruption. Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed responded to the release of the CPI with a statement describing what the government had done over the past year to prevent corruption. He offered an impressive list: simplifying procedures that invited corruption in the registration of business and securing public services, filing high-profile corruption cases, launching a National Ethics Policy, revising export and import regulations at Nigerian ports. He went on to explain:
“While we expect the results from these reforms to speak for us in due course, we are also taking measures to improve our data collection and retrieval on these issues to reduce the current under-reporting of our ongoing corruption reduction measures.”
I don’t know whether Nigeria’s strategy succeeded in quieting critics of the government’s efforts to fight corruption, and of course as many posts on this blog report, Nigeria has much to do to tame corruption. But Nigerian corruption fighters and the government for which they work deserve recognition for what they are doing. And Nigeria’s approach to addressing the release of the CPI offers a way.
Who knows, if its response garners at least half as much attention as the publication of its CPI rating, it may help build support for reform and for reformers. If that’s the result, the Nigerians may have found a way to turn the dreaded day when the CPI is released into something meaningful in the fight against corruption.
An excellent commentary — One seemingly inevitable aspect of the reactions to less-than-ideal CPI scores is a sense that corruption is spiraling out of control with little being done to slow it down, much less reduce it somehow. Putting the positive aspects of a government’s efforts out there, maybe even in the form of anticipatory announcements a few days ahead of the CPI splash, might provide essential context. Messick is right on target in arguing that we will never win the argument, nor even attract much attention, with methodological critiques alone —
Thanks Michael. Your new book with Scott Fritzen offers some very powerful reasons why the CPI is off base.
Very well said! I will pass on the article to my contacts in Transparency International Nigeria who are active in the local anti-corruption coalition.
Thanks for your nice words. Appreciate hearing from TI Nigeria
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