Guest Post–Assessing Corruption with Big Data

Today’s guest post is from Enestor Dos Santos, principal economist at BBVA Research.

Ascertaining the actual level of corruption is not easy, given that it is usually a clandestine activity, and much of the available data is not comparable across countries or across time. Survey data on corruption experience can be helpful, but it is often limited to very specific kinds of corruption (such as petty bribery). Researchers and analysts have therefore, quite reasonably, tended to rely on subjective corruption perception data, such as Transparency International’s well-known Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). (The CPI aggregates corruption perception data from a variety of other sources, mostly expert assessments.) But conventional corruption perception measures (including those use to construct the CPI) have well-known problems, including limited coverage (with respect to both years and countries) and relatively low frequency (usually annual). And they rely on the perceptions of a handful of experts, which may not necessarily be representative. These limitations mean that while traditional perception measures like the CPI may be useful for some purposes, they are not as helpful for others, such as measuring the impact of individual events or news reports on corruption perceptions, or how changes in corruption perceptions affect government approval ratings.

To address these concerns, a recent study by BBVA Research, entitled Assessing Corruption with Big Data, offered an alternative, complementary type of corruption perceptions measure, based on Google web searches about corruption. To construct this index, we examined all web searches classified by Google Trends in the “Law and Government” category for individual countries, and calculated the proportion of those searches that contain the word “corruption” (in any language and including its misspellings and synonyms). Our index, which begins in 2004, covers more than 190 countries and, unlike traditional corruption indicators, is available in real-time and with high-frequency (monthly). Moreover, it can be reproduced very easily and at very low cost.

Here are some of our main findings: Continue reading

On the Political Subtext of Definition Debates, Part 2: Measurement or Moralism?

In my last post, I conjectured that a great deal of what would seem like a dry methodological question—How should we define and measure corruption?—is actually shot through with political-ideological considerations. The reason, I further conjectured, is that “corruption” is both (1) a descriptive sociological term, used to categorize a set of related behaviors, and (2) an evaluative moral term, used to characterize certain behaviors (or people or governments or institutions or countries) as “bad” or “blameworthy.” The fact that the same term has these different functions, coupled with the fact that the word “corruption” is particularly (though not uniquely) ambiguous and open-ended, means that attempts to come up with definitions and measurements that are appropriate for some purposes may seem to others wrongheaded, even offensive.

My illustration of this difficulty in the my last post concerned debates over whether “corruption” should be defined (say, by advocacy organizations or researchers) principally as “the abuse of public power for private gain,” or instead should be defined to include purely private sector corruption (“abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). My admittedly speculative conjecture was that many (not all) who argue for the latter position do so not so much because of (plausible) arguments for analytical equivalence, but rather due to an implicit—and in my view incorrect—belief that focusing on public sector corruption suggests a neoliberal/libertarian skepticism of activist government.

Here I want to suggest a similar sort of ideological subtext in debates over whether the definition of corruption (and the sorts of corruption that the leading indicators should seek to capture) ought to be limited to what we might think of as the “direct” or “first-order” dishonest acts by the responsible officials (such as taking bribes or embezzling funds), or whether measures of corruption should also incorporate the activities that facilitate corruption (such as providing safe havens for stolen assets), as well as the ways in which the rich and powerful seek to influence public policy through legal means (such as lobbying and campaign donations). This has come up more than a couple of times in the last few months at various conferences and roundtable discussions I’ve attended. The context is typically a criticism—often impassioned—of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and the associated graphics (such as the color-coded country map) that are used to illustrate the index results. The criticism usually runs as follows (and here I’m paraphrasing, but I think fairly and accurately): Continue reading

On the Political Subtext of Definition Debates, Part 1: Public vs. Private Sector Corruption

Since I started working in the anticorruption field a few years back, I’ve noticed that a substantial amount of the discussion in this field—at conferences, in journals, on blogs like this one, etc.—is given over to debates about definition and measurement. This is something I’ve discussed, and complained about, before (see here, here, and here)—though I concede that every time I bring this up, I’m contributing to the very problem I’m complaining about.

Now, one of the reasons there’s so much debate about definition and measurement in this field is because corruption is, relative to other concepts, particularly difficult to define and measure. Another reason—in my mind the main one—is that while “corruption” is sometimes used as a purely descriptive term (that is, to describe certain conduct, which we can try to measure empirically), it is also an evaluative/normative term—one that connotes “bad” behavior of a certain sort. So any attempt to define corruption (for purposes of positive analysis or empirical research) will often, perhaps inevitably, suggest a normative position on the sorts of conduct, people, or institutions that ought to be condemned.

That’s not an original point, nor even a terribly interesting one. But the more of these “what is corruption” conversations I’ve been a part of, the more I get the sense that there’s a more specific political/ideological subtext to some of the arguments about how corruption should be defined. Nobody ever articulates these ideas in so many words, and so I may be way off base, but I’m going to offer up some conjectures, in this post and in the next one, about what I sense is the ideological subtext of some of these definitional debates.

Here I’ll focus on a fairly narrow issue: Should those organizations that focus on (and sometimes try to measure) “corruption” emphasize forms of corruption that involve the public sector (government, or entities with a sufficiently close connection with government to be considered essentially public instrumentalities), or should the “anticorruption agenda”—as well as the definition and measurement of corruption—also include purely private sector corruption? Continue reading

Two Essential Volumes on Corruption

The study of corruption and what to do about it is no longer an academic or policy-studies backwater.  Matthew’s bibliography of corruption-related publications now lists over 6,000 books, articles, and reports and, as his regular updates show (thank you Matthew), the list continues to grow at the rate of some 50 plus per month.  That is the good news.  It is also of the course the bad news.  Few practitioners, and I suspect even academics, can claim to have absorbed the learning in the 6,000 current documents let alone keep up with the outpouring of new works.

For those who can’t , I recommend two recent books: Dan Hough’s Analysing Corruption and Alina Mungui-Pippidi and Michael Johnston’s Transitions to Good Governance: Creating Virtuous Circles of Anti-Corruption.  Both do an excellent job of synthesizing and extending recent scholarship on corruption issues, and both do so in a sophisticated but accessible manner.  Both have the added virtue of being available in reasonably priced paperback editions. Continue reading

Corruption Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

Last summer UCLA Professor Miriam Golden and I did a radio interview on political corruption for a program called The Scholars’ Circle, hosted by Maria Armoudian. I just learned that a recording of the program is available online, and I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog. The recording can be found here; the discussion about corruption begins at 17:16.

The relatively brief but wide-ranging discussion, skillfully moderated by Ms. Armoudian, touches on five major issues (issues that we’ve also covered on this blog):

  • How should we define corruption, and how can we try to measure it? (at 18:11-26:31 on the recording)
  • Possible factors that might contribute to the level of corruption, including economic development, governance systems (democracy v. autocracy), social norms, and culture (26:32-32:41)
  • Whether and how countries can make the transition from a state of endemic corruption to a state of manageable/limited corruption—as well as the risk of backsliding (32:52-47:32)
  • What will the impact of the Trump Administration be on corruption, and on norms of integrity and the rule of law, in the United States? (47:42-52:02)
  • What are some of the main remedies that can help make a system less corrupt? (52:03-56:34)

There’s obviously a limit to how deep one can go in a format like this, and the program is geared toward a non-specialist audience, but I hope some readers find the conversation useful in stimulating more thinking on the topics we covered. Thanks for listening!

Guest Post: Going Beyond Bribery? Improving the Global Corruption Barometer

Coralie Pring, Research Expert at Transparency International, contributes today’s guest post:

Transparency International has been running the Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – a general population survey on corruption experience and perception – for a decade and a half now. Before moving ahead with plans for the next round of the survey, we decided to review the survey to see if we can improve it and make it more relevant to the current corruption discourse. In particular, we wanted to know whether it would be worthwhile to add extra questions on topics like grand corruption, nepotism, revolving doors, lobbying, and so forth. To that end, we invited 25 academics and representatives from some of Transparency International’s national chapters to a workshop last October to discuss plans for improving the GCB. We initially planned to focus on what we thought would be a simple question: Should we expand the GCB survey to include questions about grand corruption and political corruption?

In fact, this question was nowhere near simple to answer and it really divided the group. (Perhaps this should have been expected when you get 25 researchers in one room!) Moreover, the discussion ended up focusing less on our initial query about whether or how to expand the GCB, and more on two more basic questions: First, are citizen perceptions of corruption reflective of reality? And second, can information about citizen corruption perceptions still be useful even if they are not accurate?

Because these debates may be of interest to many of this blog’s readers, and because TI is still hoping to get input from a broader set of experts on these and related questions, we would like to share a brief summary of the workshop exchange on these core questions. Continue reading

In Bribery Experience Surveys, Should You Control for Contact?

Perception-based corruption indicators, though still the most widely-used and widely-discussed measures of corruption at the country level, get a lot of criticism (some of it misguided, but much of it fair). The main alternative measures of corruption include experience surveys, which ask a representative random sample of firms or citizens about their experience with bribery. Corruption experience surveys are neither new nor rare, but they’re getting more attention these days as researchers and advocates look for more “objective” ways of assessing corruption levels and monitoring progress. Indeed, although some early discussions of measurement of progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) anticorruption target (Target 16.5) suggested—much to my chagrin—that changes in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) score would be the main measure of progress, more recent discussions appear to indicate that in fact progress toward Goal Target 16.5 will be assessed using experience surveys (see here and here).

Of course, corruption experience surveys have their own problems. Most obviously, they typically only measure a fairly narrow form of corruption (usually petty bribery). Also, there’s always the risk that respondents won’t answer truthfully. There’s actually been quite a bit of interesting recent research on that latter concern, which Rick discussed a while back and that I might post about more at some point. But for now, I want to put that problem aside to focus on a different challenge for bribery experience surveys: When presenting or interpreting the results of those surveys, should one control for the amount of contact the respondents have with government officials? Or should one focus on overall rates of bribery, without regard for whether or how frequently respondents interacted with the government?

To make this a bit more concrete, imagine two towns, A and B, each with 1,000 inhabitants. Suppose we survey every resident of both towns and we ask them two questions: First, within the past 12 months, have you had any contact with a government official? Second, if the answer to the first question was yes, did the government official demand a bribe? In Town A, 200 of the residents had contact with a government official, and of these 200, 100 of them reported that the government official they encountered solicited a bribe. In Town B, 800 residents had contact with a government official, and of these 800, 200 reported that the official solicited a bribe. If we don’t control for contact, we would say that bribery experience rates are twice as high in Town B (20%) as in Town A (10%). If we do control for contact, we would say that bribery experience rates were twice as high in Town A (50%) as in Town B (25%). In which town is bribery a bigger problem? In which one are the public officials more corrupt?

The answer is not at all obvious; both controlling for contact and not controlling for contact have potentially significant problems: Continue reading