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Re-thinking strategy

Over the course of the last fifty years, as the subject of corruption has moved from being at the political and economic margins to becoming a mainstream issue, reform efforts have proliferated. From global multilateral reforms like the establishment of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), the EU corruption-monitoring process GRECO (Group of States Against Corruption) and the Open Government Partnership (OGP), to corruption reform in local services by NGOs and municipalities, the scale ranges from the global to the local.

The patchy and generally unsatisfactory impact of these efforts has come in for increasing scrutiny.  In a recent paper by one of the current authors, Heywood (2017, 21) analyses the ‘apparent mismatch between the attention focused on corruption and our collective capacity to make a practical difference’. He identifies three main reasons for the discrepancy: the way that corruption has been conceptualised, the tendency to concentrate on the nation-state as the primary unit of analysis, and the lack of disaggregation of the different types of corruption in an increasingly transnational world.

In CurbingCorruption, we develop these arguments further, rethinking how committed change leaders conceive, develop and implement their reform strategies. How does one conceive a reform strategy? What choices are available, or could be considered, when conceiving the reform strategy? What does it mean to think strategically about corruption reform? Can such thinking be framed or steered in a way that learns usefully from the experience of other reformers?

Two features are immediately obvious when reflecting on strategy and strategic thinking. First, rather like the term ‘corruption’, the word ‘strategy’ has become overused to the point where it has little real meaning; instead, it is used as a choice phrase to insert as required, along with ‘stakeholder consultation’, ‘evidence-based’ and the like. Indeed, a highly cited paper by one of the preeminent academics in the field is titled ‘The lost meaning of strategy’ (Strachan 2005). Second, conversely, strategic thinking is a real mode of thought, highly prized in the military and in business, and it has been the subject of deep examination in both domains in the past two decades.

Our objective in CurbingCorruption is to reclaim strategy as an essential part of every corruption reform effort, that can assist change leaders in thinking through what options they have, or could have, for achieving their reforms.

More on the history of strategy…

Clarifying and re-framing the objectives

The military pays a lot of attention to developing clear purpose and objectives. In current NATO allied command doctrine, the objective is expressed as the Commander’s Intent (NATO 2019, x), which is the

‘clear and concise expression of what the force must do and the conditions the force must establish to accomplish the mission. It is a succinct, written description of the commander’s visualization of the entire operation and what the commander wants to accomplish. The commander will communicate the intent to the staff and subordinate commands ensuring a common understanding’.

However, in corruption reform, objectives can be deceptive. Reducing corruption may seem to be the obvious objective, but sometimes corruption is merely acting as the visible constraint on a particular functional improvement such as improved healthcare or lower electricity costs for citizens. In such cases, the more appropriate direct objective may well be to enhance healthcare provision or to introduce a more competitive market in energy provision, rather than to focus on combating corruption.  The label of corruption may alternatively be serving as a catch-all for a complex of other failings. Guidance on strategy formulation in corruption reform needs to give concrete help to decide how best to frame the objectives, starting with the choice of direct or indirect framing.

Direct framing is where it makes sense to express the objective as ‘reducing corruption’. An example is the objective to establish a new anti-corruption law, to which the reform leaders should hold true despite many twists and turns of circumstance. For example, in the USA the campaign to pass a bill requiring transparency of corporate beneficial ownership began in 2000, driven by Senator Carl Levin and the US Senate Permanent Sub-Committee of Investigations, which Levin chaired. Like the UK Bribery Act, Levin and his supporters kept to the objective of passing a bill, modifying it multiple times in response to objections, over a fifteen year period from 2000 to 2015 (Bean 2018).  Sometimes, whilst still direct, an interimobjective is better. The US experience just noted diverted to this once it became clear that the bill would never get enough support to pass. By 2016, the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition supporting the legislative reform realised that the bill would not pass until each opponent was won over individually. The objective, or perhaps FACT’s objective, was therefore re-defined as winning over each opponent, even though this meant a recognition that several more years of patient lobbying would be required.

Indirect framing is relevant for corruption reform when the underlying objective – such as improving hospital access – is the problem and corruption is one of the reasons why it is not being solved. Sometimes a proximate objective is preferable in situations where the reality is too complex to be easily communicated. This is where an objective is chosen that is close enough at hand to be feasible and with a reasonable expectation of being achieved. The classic example was the US President’s call in 1961 to place a man on the moon, a proxy for catching up with the USSR’s overwhelming lead in space; a call that was clear, motivating, achievable and cut through all the technical complexity of rocket science. An example in corruption reform was the campaign against the international flow of the proceeds of corruption. This could have been articulated as a direct anti-corruption reform, but it was better articulated as something else; first ‘dirty money’ and then Illicit Financial Flows or IFF (Norad 2016). A recent tactical scale example of using a proximate objective advantageously is the campaign in some US states to address corruption by limiting electoral finance contributions, couched in terms of stressing the need to reduce out-of-state influence rather than talking of anti-corruption (on the story of the North Dakota campaign, see representUS 2018, see also Wilcox 2005).

Sometimes, where the situation is highly dynamic and unpredictable, it hardly makes sense to have any overarching objective at all: better simply to go for a minimalist objective and instead make small progress steps as the opportunities arise. In the language of military doctrine: ‘Such Intuitive decision making … normally involves pattern recognition based on knowledge, judgment, experience, education, intelligence, boldness, perception, and character…. It may be more effective when time is short; and relies on a commander’s experience and ability to recognize the key elements and implications of a particular problem or situation’ (US Army 2019, S2.2ff).

Making a diagnosis that defines a domain of action

A comprehensive analysis of all the factors involved can inform, but a strategy needs a diagnosis that ‘simplifies the often overwhelming ill-structured complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical’ (Rumelt 2011, 79). A good diagnosis does more than explain a situation, it also defines a domain of action. At a minimum, the diagnosis names or classifies the situation, which can open up access to knowledge about how analogous situations were handled in the past. However, there is as yet no good understanding in the anti-corruption field of what constitutes a good diagnosis.  On the one hand, while analyses of the corruption problems and of the related political economy have become increasingly available, their complexity often stops them from serving as a diagnosis in the sense of offering the essential extra step of ‘calling attention to those aspects that make sense of the situation’ or ‘defining a domain of action’. On the other hand, the difficulty of diagnosis is also caused by the lack of knowledge and insufficient sophistication in knowing what to do. Heywood (2017, 47)concluded that, without greater analytic sophistication and depth, ‘it will remain difficult to develop interventions that have an impact on the lived reality of specific instances of actual corrupt practices, as opposed to generic observations about which places are more corrupt than others.’

Better diagnostic approaches can be employed. Pyman (2020), for instance, disaggregates the overall corruption concern first by sector and then by corruption issue, with many (though not all) of the issues being specific to the sector. These can then be triaged, in discussion among colleagues, stakeholders and others, according to their impact on outcomes, on costs, on citizen staisfaction, and other relvant criteria. Deeper insights, such as the economic drivers and the particular ways in which the public and private groups interact, can also be obtained by looking at corruption within sectors.

Developing an actionable reform approach

Having clarified and reframed the objectives and engaged in a process of diagnosis that identifies a domain of activity, we need next to define what that activity may entail in practice.  However, rather than be too prescriptive, the aim is to establish what in the business world has been termed ‘guiding policy’, which ‘outlines the overall approach without defining what exactly should be done in a given situation but rules out a vast array of possible actions’ (Rumelt 2011, 84). As ‘policy’ has a very specific connotation in political settings, we propose a better description in the context of anti-corruption is ‘actionable reform approach’.  By this, we mean the following:

‘Actionable’ excludes approaches that are impossible, theoretical or simply a statement of desire. The approach obviously needs to encompass feasible ways forward. As Khan et al. (2016, 1) point out, ‘In societies that have widespread rule violations, high-impact anti-corruption is only likely to be feasible if the overall strategy succeeds in aligning the interests and capabilities of powerful organizations at the sectoral level to support the enforcement of particular sets of rules.’  Approaches such as ‘ensuring agents hold principals to account’ have no actionable applicability in situations where the governing equilibrium is particularistic, since in such situations there is no meaningful agency to be exercised (Mungiu-Pippidi 2015). Similarly, declarations that more political will is required or the judicial system needs strengthening may reflect genuinely held desires, but they are not actionable approaches: when political will or judicial capacity is lacking, there are usually deep-seated structural reasons for that lack.

‘Reform’ emphasises that this activity is not about restating the challenge to be addressed, the problems it gives rise to, or the underlying causes. It is focused foursquarely on the constructive side, that is how to go about engaging in real reform by identifying feasible interventions and actions that can be taken to change a situation for the better.

‘Approach’ signifies that this is about the broad direction, not the specific reform measures. The overall approach encompasses the available leverage and sources of advantage available to the reformers. It takes into account the broader political context, the support they can garner and the likely opposition they will face.  The corruption reform world has a tendency to conflate the overall approach with specific measures. For instance, ‘transparency’ can be an overall reform approach – seeking transparency-based solutions as used by the international extractive sector initiative EITI, for example – or it can refer to a specific technique, such as the publication of the details of a national oil budget when before it was available only at aggregated level.

The distinction between broad direction and specific reform measures recalls the military conception referred to at the start of this paper, in which ‘techniques and procedures’ encompass the essential detail below the strategic, operational and tactical scales of warfare (US Joint Chiefs of Staff 2020). By this they do not mean paper procedures, but specific techniques such as tank pincer movements or frontal infantry assaults. In the anti-corruption world these might translate as individual techniques like transparency of the budget, e-procurement, asset declarations, establishing an anti-corruption agency, and so forth.

Below, adapted from Pyman (2020), we outline six examples of what we mean by actionable reform approach that can serve as a guiding framework for more specific reform measures:

  • Multiple small reforms approach. Working deliberately with small changes can help build momentum and credibility for reform, whilst minimising the scope for political opposition and paving the way to take advantage of larger opportunities if and when they occur. This approach is consistent with the recent advice in the European Commission’s toolbox for practitioners seeking to promote good governance through public administration reforms (European Commission 2017). Citing Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011, 42), they note that ‘[a]dministrative systems are often difficult to change in more-than-incremental ways.’ Research on organisational sense-making similarly suggests that it is helpful to recast large problems into smaller ones (Weick 2001, 247). Indeed, academic research confirms that in the field of anti-corruption, this low-profile approach of making steady progress whilst awaiting larger opportunities is the more common route to success. In the words of Mungiu-Pippidi (2016, 104), ‘[a] governance order can be changed, but change will occur gradually and punctuated equilibria will be the rule.’
  • Rapid, radical reform approach. Following on from the point above, when there is a political opening through some disruption of the prevailing equilibrium, there may be the chance to make significant change through radical reform. The so-called ‘big bang’ changes referred to above in relation to Georgia and Estonia were examples of this.  A radical approach can be appropriate in other circumstances too, for example when needing to make major change in a large organisation. Staff in most such organisations, whether they be global commercial enterprises or government ministries, become expert at subverting change initiatives.  Making a dramatic and sudden step change may be the only possible way to counteract such subversion; another example might be to cut a reform-resistant ministry into two or more pieces to make it easier to tackle reform in manageable chunks. The same radical approach can also be useful on a smaller scale, for instance, by suddenly and publicly removing a senior member of a directorate known to be involved in corrupt activities.
  • ‘Bundling’ reform approach. Well understood by politicians, a deliberate bundling of reforms may be the best approach in environments where each individual reform will be seen through a polarised political lens. This may allow the package of reform measure to be approved even whilst individual ones are strongly opposed by particular groupings. The US example quoted earlier, in relation to using a proximate objective to address corruption in electoral finance contributions, used this approach of bundling 5-10 reforms onto the ballot paper.
  • ‘Keeping-up-hope’ reform approach. In highly hostile environments it can be hard to imagine any approach that might be tolerated, let alone have an impact. In such cases, perhaps the only approach is one that could be described as ‘keeping up hope’ where a few modest reforms, perhaps even ones that seem trivially small, are initiated. The purpose is not to have material impact – almost by definition the reforms would be shut down if they did have an impact – but to continue to give hope to those working in the system that change is still being contemplated and that they should not despair. Officials working in such situations know very well what the politics are and will often energetically join in with such modest reforms precisely because they too share the goal of keeping up hope. The training programmes initiated in the Ukraine security service before the Maidan revolution in 2014 is one such example (Pyman 2017), as were some of the reforms in the military and police in Afghanistan (see Pyman 2015, Pyman, Mohammadi, and Sarag 2016).
  • Integrity-centred reform approach. In situations where the mere mention of corruption has negative consequences, even when describing successes (Peiffer 2018), it may be more realistic to gain traction for reform measures if they are couched in terms of integrity (but cf. Heywood and Kirby 2020). For instance, the OECD has placed major emphasis in recent years on the need to build public integrity, seen as essential for building strong institutions and creating more inclusive societies (OECD 2017a, b). The NATO defence sector anti-corruption initiative was branded ‘Building Integrity’ from its start in 2007, despite being fully within the normal definition of corruption reform (NATO 2020).
  • Monitoring-centred reform approach. Rather than tackle the substance of the corruption issues directly, an alternative reform approach is to set up dedicated monitoring in a given sector. One option is to use sector-focused NGOs specifically established for the purpose – as was the case, for example, with the quarterly monitoring teams established by the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) in Afghanistan to track progress in health, education and the attorney general’s operations (MEC 2019).

Whilst there is no theoretical limit to the possible number of such actionable reform approaches, it is helpful for practitioners if just a limited number of the more common approaches are presented. This can form the basis for practical discussions that they can hold with their colleagues of which approaches could work best for them. Pyman (2020) and Pyman and Heywood (2020) put forward schema for such reform approaches, but more development and research on which approaches have been used in practice, and with what results, is needed.



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