Corruption: No One is Perfect

CIDS policy paper no. 3 (2016)

Written by CIDS director Per Christensen

There is no country in the world without corruption. Norway is ranked as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, meaning that we have strong institutions in place and effective control mechanisms to manage the risk of corruption. However, as Transparency International states in its Global Corruption Perception Index, not one single country, anywhere in the world, is corruption-free.

The fact that Norway is perceived to have a low level of corruption, often leads to the misconception that corruption does not exist. Often we seem to believe that corruption is something that concerns ‘others’, and is not something we will get involved in ourselves. Too often, corruption is perceived as something that happens in countries far away, in underdeveloped countries, and among poor people. Another misconception is that when it comes to corruption, there is always money involved. This is not right, as corruption is the abuse of power for private gain. Corruption may therefore entail not only bribery, but also misuse of positions, consisting of favors and counter favors. Corruption can disguise in such a way that it is not so easy to see. One example is from the Norwegian public sector, where it can be accepted to have a working lunch with a potential business partner. But what if you have weekly lunches with business partners, or continue these meetings even after a competition has been launched? Then it is not acceptable. In this example, no money has been exchanged, but it is still something that is questionable – even if it might not be covered by the term corruption in the penalty code.

The most efficient way to combat corruption is to actually prevent corrupt and unethical behavior from happening. In order to do that we need to acknowledge that corruption is something that concerns all of us – all over the world. Greed is a part of human culture – in despite of where you come from. Therefore, we have to acknowledge the fact that corruption happens everywhere, and that we all can do better in fighting it. Even in Norway where the risk is low, it is not absent. Low risk does not mean no risk.

Civil servants are seen as individuals that manage public goods on behalf of the society, and therefore they have to adhere to a strict set of rules. But what about the risk of corruption in the private sector? In my opinion, the same rules should apply also for employees in this sector. Unless you own your own company, you manage money or goods for somebody else, for instance shareholders. Therefore, employees in the private sector should also adhere to strict ethical rules and code of conduct. An example can be found in the Norwegian Ministry of Defence’s Ethical guidelines for contact with business and industry in the defence sector. In this guide, many relevant dilemmas and ethical questions are raised and discussed. As civil servants, we should reflect on these dilemmas on a daily basis.

I would argue that the first step to reduce corruption is to acknowledge that the risk is there. The second step is to practice to manage that risk. The Norwegian Olympic champion in alpine skiing, Kjetil Jansrud, once said that if you train enough on something, you get good at it. Therefore, organisations need to train individuals in managing that risk and tackling the daily ethical dilemmas we all are facing. In order to do that, the organisation needs to identify relevant dilemmas and situations that occur in their day-to-day business.

I would claim that the major problem with managing ethical dilemmas is that you don’t understand that you are facing one. You unconsciously tumble into trouble. In the mid 2000’s there were several incidents in the Norwegian defence sector, where officials were accused of corruption-like actions. One of the officers involved had been invited by a former colleague from the war college to stay at his company’s cottage. This might sound innocent, but the company was a major defence supplier so it was not OK at all. I am confident that if they had identified the dilemma beforehand, their reaction could easily have been ‘thanks, but no thanks’. In retrospect, the defence supplier understood that this act was unethical, and that he should not have put the officer in this situation.

By training people in identifying and handling dilemmas you will reduce the risk of corruption and threat of integrity breaches significantly. Therefore, it is essential to identify dilemmas and then to discuss them extensively with your colleagues. Not only what is right or wrong, but also how they can be managed. You will experience that genuine dilemmas have more than one solution, and you will be surprised by what kind of discussions you get into. People usually get very engaged because they see that such discussions concerns issues they face on a daily basis. It is not only abstract issues of a philosophical nature, it could also be very specific and something you experience in your daily work.

My last advice is to focus on recruiting people with a good ability to do ethical reflections. This means that both the vacancy announcement and job description should include a qualification requirement for personal integrity and high ethical standard. Candidates should also be tested at interviews by presenting the candidate to simple ethical cases. Their ability to reflect on the cases should be included in the report recommending who should have the position. This could be a substantial contribution to reduce the risk of corruption in your organization.

A lot can be done to by simple means to reduce the risk of corruption. To conclude I would emphasis the following:
• Acknowledge that low risk does not mean no risk.
• Train people to identify the dilemmas they are facing on a daily basis and train them to handle them.
• Recruit people that can think independently and have the ability to reflect on ethical issues.