Governance, corruption and misuse of office

Our government might be honest, but it is certainly inefficient because narrow elites are capturing the state and exerting excess influence on policy

Political corruption takes place at the highest levels of political authority
Political corruption takes place at the highest levels of political authority

Corruption exists at many different levels. I would dare argue that a definition of corruption is impossible because it is a concept that is culturally determined and varies from one society to another. For example, gift-giving to officials may be expected in one country and prohibited by law in another. Undoubtedly, however, corruption involves the misuse of power by those who hold it —people who, in their official position, exploit the power with which they are entrusted by seeking private gain. So how is corruption being culturally determined in Malta?

We have witnessed dramatic changes in the recent past. Questions relating to how and when ordinary citizens can stand against oppression, injustice, and abuse without resorting to violence challenge all of us to rethink our understanding of democracy and the rule of law. The media, local and international, as well as a number of influential bodies, have been paying increasing attention to corruption and how to control it. For one thing, they all realise that corruption has very high costs for our society, particularly for the ordinary man in the street.

Not only can corruption keep funding law violations and criminal networks, but it can also prevent the development of effective institutions of governance. When money and resources available to the government are diverted by corrupt officials instead of being channelled for the benefit of citizens, the clock turns back on social and economic development. This, in turn, can create further instability. In these ways, corruption, governance, and social unrest are all linked. But corruption exists everywhere in some form and can be pervasive in some official and unofficial quarters. Rooting it out is more difficult than it seems.

Varieties of economic, political, administrative, social, and cultural factors enable and foster corruption. Corruption is collective rather than simply individual, going beyond private gain to encompass broader interests and benefits within political systems. It is a symptom of wider governance dynamics and is likely to thrive in conditions where accountability is weak and people have too much discretion. It is this collective and systemic character of corruption that makes it so entrenched and difficult to address, and democracy does not in itself lead to reduced corruption.

A distinction between political corruption and bureaucratic corruption is also helpful. Political corruption takes place at the highest levels of political authority. It involves politicians, government ministers, senior civil servants, and other elected, nominated, or appointed senior public officeholders. Political corruption is the abuse of office by those who decide on laws and regulations and the basic allocation of resources in our society (i.e., those who make the "rules of the game"). Political corruption may include tailoring laws and regulations to the advantage of private sector agents in exchange for bribes, granting large public contracts to specific firms, or embezzling funds from the treasury.

The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws. All of these acts give rise to grand corruption, reflecting the scale of corruption and the considerable sums of money involved.

Bureaucratic corruption occurs during the implementation of public policies. It involves appointed bureaucrats and public administration staff at the central or local level. It entails corrupt acts among those who implement the rules designed or introduced by top officials. Corruption may include transactions between bureaucrats and private agents (e.g., contracted service providers).

Such agents may demand extra payment for the provision of government services, make speed money payments to expedite bureaucratic procedures, or pay bribes to allow actions that violate rules and regulations. Corruption also includes interactions within the public bureaucracy, such as the payment or taking of bribes or kickbacks to obtain posts or secure promotion, or the mutual exchange of favours.

Political corruption and bureaucratic corruption are related. Corruption at the top of a bureaucracy increases corruption at lower levels. Our political system has miserably failed to mediate the relationship between private wealth and public power. We have, thus, risked a dysfunctional government captured by wealthy interests. Corruption is one symptom of such failure, with private willingness-to-pay trumping public goals. It is a real and significant challenge to development. We must distinguish corruption by type of gain (power, money, position, goods, or services), by method of corruption (bribery, embezzlement, future employment), or by the target influenced (laws and regulatory design, legal or regulatory application, procurements, hiring decisions, distribution of resources or services). Of course, corruption, in the sense of bribes, payoffs, and kickbacks, is only one type of government failure. Efforts to promote "good governance" must be broader than anti-corruption campaigns.

Our government might be honest, but it is certainly inefficient because narrow elites are capturing the state and exerting excess influence on policy. Such a situation may dangerously facilitate a spiral into an even worse situation.

We have been in and out of the grey list. Yet the threat of weak governance and the seeds of corruption and misuse of public office are still with us. Whereas before perhaps absolute power was the root of all corruption, now it appears that fear will be the root: The fear of loss of power.