India: Strategies to Fight Corruption

In July 2014, a delegation of senior public officials from India travelled to Berkeley for an intensive executive training session on fighting corruption.

Scholars from the Berkeley Center for Politics and Economics participated in the program, held at the Goldman School of Public Policy, because of their rigorous studies on the nature of corruption and strategies to reduce it.

What officials wanted was practical insight. What were the forces that spurred corruption, and how could they be tamed? What was the full impact of corruption on a government’s finances, operations, and legitimacy in the eyes of citizens? What were the elements of a National Integrity System that would establish proper ethics laws, credible enforcement and effective procedures to audit for compliance?

Before arriving, the Indian officials had already been referred to an extensive list of books and scholarly articles, as well as to practical tools and guidelines from organizations such as Transparency International.

But the day’s highlight was the Anti-Corruption Lab. Here, the Indian officials each described the most urgent and difficult challenges they had faced in their own work. Speaking openly, under the protection of confidentiality, they aired a wide array of agonizing worries. How should civil servants deal with demands by elected political leaders who, under pressure from the public, wanted them to alter regulatory priorities? How could they navigate the minefield of vested interests in making honest procurement decisions? How to deal with publicly-paid doctors who might be be deviating from international best practices?

Perhaps the biggest worry, and one shared by public officials in many nations, was the most difficult: how could they fight corruption when the courts and judges themselves might be under pressure to punish honest officials? It was a topic that Ernesto Dal Bó, the center’s co-director, had himself explored in studies of the threats and bribes used to sway public officials in Latin America.

The Anti-Corruption Lab gave the Indian officials an opportunity to compare notes, apply the principles they had been absorbing all day, and candidly brainstorm with each other about solutions.

Corruption is a vexing disease that infects institutions in scores of ways, imposing pressures and demoralizing risks on public officials for whom integrity is often central to their self-esteem.

The Anti-Corruption Lab couldn’t solve all those problems, but it gave participants both a stronger foundation for thinking through solutions and new conviction to push for them.