How to Eradicate Government Corruption

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Among other things, government corruption deals a blow to the country’s economic vitality, and makes it less attractive to investors and entrepreneurs.

Illustration | Flash 90

Government corruption has serious implications for myriad aspects of life. At the core of such corruption is the fact that actions of elected officials and civil servants are not being targeted at the public good, and public resources are not channeled in ways that would further the public interest.

The first and primary “victim” of government corruption is public trust in government institutions and the motives behind their actions, thus undermining the democratic system. The public loses confidence that its rights are being protected; that the government it elected is true to the principles to which they had pledged their allegiance; and that their decisions will be based on considerations promoting the public interest. It is no wonder then, that a strong correlation exists between countries ranking low on a variety of democracy indices and those with widespread corruption as perceived by the business community and investors.

Among other things, government corruption deals a blow to the country’s economic vitality, and makes it less attractive to investors and entrepreneurs. It interferes with the distribution and utilization of public resources – not allowing for their maximal utilization for the benefit of the general public – and jeopardizes social solidarity, quality of life, and the standard of living.

In the context of the recent Knesset election campaign, the Israel Democracy Institute developed a comprehensive plan to combat government corruption. Goals include: preventing and eradicating the phenomenon; creating significant deterrence; strengthening disciplinary and criminal enforcement tools; creating government mechanisms to identify corruption and questionable norms and to amend them; guaranteeing protection for whistle blowers; enhancing transparency of decision making processes; and developing clear processes for budget allocations, lobbyists’ activities, and more.

Behavioral ethics research has demonstrated that it is often “good people” who act in a corrupt manner. They may justify their own corrupt actions through various unconscious and self-deceptive mental processes. To combat this behavior, regulators must upgrade their toolbox beyond formal ethical codes and financial incentives, and make better use of regulatory tools, such as various incentives and reminders, in order to enhance compliance with laws and regulations. 

Such interventions aim to reduce ambiguity regarding ethical norms, the availability of non-monetary rewards for malfeasance, opportunities for self-justification and the desire to help friends at the inadvertent expense of others. Policymakers also need to be aware of the fact that classical approaches to limiting corruption, in fact, sometimes increase the propensity of good people to engage in misconduct.

At the same time, in order to heighten awareness and enhance ethical conduct, the plan includes recommendations for promoting the assimilation of ethical norms in the public sector, enhancing public awareness of the importance of the war on corruption, and education in public ethics. Among other things, IDI researchers propose boosting the ethical consciousness of those who are not aware of their own activities, which are the product of ethical lapses, and see themselves as paragons of virtue. This approach, grounded in behavioral ethics, highlights how unconscious and self-deceptive mental processes are liable to affect decisions and encourage ethical shortcomings, and even corruption.

IDI researchers show how the standard measures to fight corruption may – paradoxically – sometimes encourage unethical behavior by “good people,” and help them convince themselves that they are in the clear. Alternative behavioral tools are proposed that could help heighten ethical awareness in advance of decision-making, significantly improve the assimilation of ethical norms in the public sector and promote a vigorous campaign against corruption.

The article appeared in the Jerusalem Post