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Researching Corruption in the UK: Strengths, Weaknesses and Future Paths

Written by Guest on Thursday, 2 October 2014

Dr Liz David-Barrett, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex, discusses the strengths and weaknesses of corruption research in the UK, along with some innovative developments in thinking and methodology.

Dr Liz David-Barrett, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex, discusses the strengths and weaknesses of corruption research in the UK, along with some innovative developments in thinking and methodology.

At the Transparency International research symposium last month, I suggested that there are three factors that benefit corruption research in the UK, but also three weaknesses that inhibit this research.  I present them again here, along with three exciting new areas where there is great research potential.

The first key strength of the UK corruption research context is the very active research role played by civil society, particularly NGOs and think tanks.  Transparency International’s UK chapter has a strong policy of basing its advocacy work on sound research.  As a researcher who has been fortunate enough to work with them on a number of reports, I can also vouch for the fact that they respect the researcher’s independence and integrity.  Research is about enquiry.  It does not always yield the results expected or justify policy positions that might suit a particular agenda.  TI-UK remains true to the results it finds, and shapes its advocacy agenda around them, not vice versa.

But there are also many other organisations doing excellent research on corruption.  Global Witness has impressive expertise and determination in conducting thorough investigations in difficult circumstances.  And some think tanks that cover issues of politics and governance more broadly, such as the Hansard Society and the Institute for Government, are also producing excellent research that is highly pertinent to understanding political corruption in the UK.   

Second, the UK has very strong international development expertise, in academia and in aid agencies.  This is critical to understanding how corruption works in developing countries, and in furthering our understanding of how corruption works in a wide range of contexts.  This has important spillover benefits for explaining corruption in the UK context. 

Third, there is a core of academics who have been working on corruption for a long time, way before it was as mainstream or fashionable as it is now.  Mark Philp’s work on the knotty problem of defining corruption, Paul Heywood’s work on public ethos, and Alan Doig’s work on standards in public life, especially local government, have framed the debate.  They have laid the groundwork for much corruption research in the UK, but have also inspired and trained a number of academics and practitioners, many of whom are sitting in this room today.

There are, however, also some important weaknesses or gaps that hinder corruption research in the UK.  The first is declining institutional capacity to monitor government at various levels.   I do not mean institutional capacity in law-enforcement, where there have been some positive moves in recent years, not least the creation of the National Crime Agency.  But many corruption issues do not involve breaches of the law, and are best identified and prevented by institutions with powers to monitor government.  The dismantling of the Audit Commission in particular threatens this capacity to spot flaws or risk areas in the system and to address them in a systematic way.  While many of the functions of the Audit Commission have been transferred to other bodies, there was great merit in housing them in one autonomous institution. 

Second, on the academic side, there is a disappointing lack of coordination and collaboration, even discussion!  Academic disciplines are often silos, but this makes even less sense when it comes to researching something as interdisciplinary as corruption, where lawyers, economists, political scientists, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, management scholars and development experts often have so much to gain from talking to one another.    Funding bodies are beginning to talk about the importance of interdisciplinary research, but in practice the incentives and governance structures often work against this.  Academics are getting better at this.  Dan Hough at the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption has done a great deal to break down disciplinary boundaries and the new Political Studies Association group set up by Olli Hellmann and Paul Whiteley will also help to address this problem.  But we need to continue to create institutions and fora that facilitate this communication.

The third problem is probably the most difficult.  There is a highly complacent attitude towards corruption in the UK, a sense that this country is really very clean and there is nothing to fix.  This affects academics’ willingness to research corruption, but it also shapes the language that is used and hence the way that issues are characterised.     And it can also hinder the research, because potential sources of information are blind to the problems, or do not see them as corruption, and hence are not willing to engage.  The anti-corruption movement is often guilty of buying into this because, from an international perspective, corruption is not as prominent a part of life in the UK as it is in many developing countries.  But developing countries are surely not an appropriate benchmark for a mature democracy which likes to regard itself as an attractive centre for international resources-resources-business. 

These gripes aside, there are some innovative and exciting developments in thinking and methodology which could shape the UK corruption research agenda in the coming years.  First, Open Data and particularly open government data, i.e., the practice of the government publishing large databases about its own activities, has great potential as a tool to tackle corruption.  It can help us to detect corruption in ways that have not been possible before.  Whereas we have depended on tip-offs and on studying individual cases in detail, we can now analyse big data to spot patterns or trends that look uncorruption-resources-corruption-resources-healthy and warrant closer scrutiny.  And that in itself, the threat of disclosure, may help to deter corurption.   Note that open data is not only a useful tool for civil society, but also as a way of improving intra-governmental accountability.  New methodologies for analyzing open government data can help us detect corruption in public procurement, for example, or allow us to ask questions about patterns or lobbying.

Second, we need to think harder about ‘institutional corruption’.  I do not think we should be complacent about corruption levels in the UK, but it is possible that the types of corruption that prevail here are different, and warrant a different research focus.  In the United States at the moment, there is a lot of discussion about institutional corruption.  By that, I mean corruption which is often regarded as normal practice, yet which threatens to undermine the purpose of democratic institutions by inhibiting widespread access or allocating policy attention to narrow interests.  Party finance is a key focus, but so are issues relating to the revolving door and lobbying.  These issues are just as pertinent to understanding corruption in the UK.  Yet they are all very difficult areas, requiring us to draw very fine – and fragile – lines between proper and improper practice.  These questions warrant much greater attention and the United Kingdom can be a good place to explore them.

Third, corruption scholars are beginning to ask what they can learn from new research in behavioural economics and psychology.  ‘Nudge theory’ suggests that individuals sometimes act in ways that are sub-optimal for society (but also often for themselves) simply out of habit or inertia.   The Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team has been experimenting with ways to use what we know about this ‘irrational’ behavior to prompt people to make better choices.   Some of their results show that people are more likely to comply with tax laws, for example, if told that most of the people in their town have already complied.  These experiments tend to get the best results in situations where there is a fairly clear norm and significant consensus about that norm.  (If nobody complies, then it is much harder to persuade people that compliance makes sense for them.)  But the UK is just such an environment.  This is a very promising area for research on countering corruption and improving governance, and the UK is an ideal test site.



 Dr Liz David-Barrett is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex, home to the  Centre  for the Study of Corruption.


Read 5495 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 11:47


The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.

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