The moral of Arsenal, Everton, and the danger of kidding yourself

Denniz Futalan/Pexels

On the back of a troubling performance in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Professor Dan Hough, examines the UK’s perception of itself and its anti-corruption credentials, and draws some lessons from Everton’s unenviable descent to the English Premier League’s relegation zone.

Fans of English football will have noticed that a (relatively) new kid on the block is leading the way in the 2022-23 English Premier League (EPL) season. Arsenal, a team with a famous history and a global profile, have won English football’s top prize 13 times since it was first awarded (to Preston North End, seeing as you ask) in 1889. The last of those triumphs was nonetheless back in 2004 and few people expected the club to be putting that right in 2022-23. As the days draw longer, Arsenal are in a great place to do just that.

As January turned to February, another league table made (at least some) headlines. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) was published on 31 January. As with the English Premier League, much of it was eminently predictable. It wouldn’t have taken much expertise to have predicted that the Nordic countries would do well just as even the most casual of observers would expect the likes of Manchester City, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur to be fighting for spots representing England in next year’s European club competitions (Champions League, Europa League, Conference League). 

At the bottom, it was a similar story. South Sudan (13 out of 100), Syria (13) and Somalia (12) come in with the worst scores on the CPI and whilst there’s been movement in some places – the likes of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania have all made noticeable improvements through 2022 – the story is generally a sadly familiar one. No one was surprised that conflict-ridden places struggled to make improvements in terms of their CPI scores. Predicting which sides are going to be at the bottom of the EPL is perhaps more challenging, but the fact that Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest are in battles for their top flight survival won’t be a massive surprise to many. Some things really are quite predictable.

Context, momentum and planning

Why mention the CPI and mid-season positions in the English Premier League in the same breath? Football, much as is the case with fighting corruption, is often perceived to be about momentum. Get off to good start, have a clear idea of what you’re doing and the momentum can quickly begin to carry you forward. For two decades, Arsenal were the veritable country mile from being the best football side in England, yet Mikel Arteta, their young and talented coach, has carefully put together a squad and a plan that has been effective at helping him achieve his goals (i.e. winning football games). The experience of winning matches and knowing how to get through challenging situations (such as, say, an away game at your local rival, Tottenham Hotspur; Arsenal won 2-0 at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium on 15 January) has seen Arsenal develop a momentum that fans and opponents alike think might take them all the way to the league title in May.

If you’re going to get anti-corruption right then much of Arteta’s thinking – and the momentum you can generate as things start to change – travels well. Anti-corruption is understanding your context, it’s about bringing in (and empowering) actors to believe they can make a difference and it’s about being realistic in setting your goals and indeed working out how to achieve them. Anti-corruption activists, just like football managers, need to live in the world of the doable, not in a fantasy parallel universe where they can do whatever they want whenever they want. 

Arteta joined Arsenal in 2019; he didn’t immediately say that the club was going to win the league that year (read across to the anti-corruption actor who needs to be clear that eradicating corruption is just not feasible). He thought about where the club was, he worked out a plan, he developed a realistic strategy for getting there and he then began executing it. Only then does the momentum moving you towards positive outcomes really become evident. 

The UK and the wish to be Arsenal

That’s all well and good, but there is another angle on Arsenal’s path to success and indeed on the reasons that others might fail to emulate them. And it is not perhaps a story that too many in Whitehall’s corridors of power will like embracing.

If you listen to many of the cheerleaders in and around the UK’s Conservative Party then they’d like you to believe that in terms of trying to tackle corruption the UK has much in common with the current premier league leaders. The UK’s anti-corruption thinking looks on the surface like it is pretty well-organised. The country has an anti-corruption plan and indeed an anti-corruption strategy. It’s frequently talked a good game, whether that be in the form of bringing in powerful bits of legislation (i.e. UK Bribery Act in 2010), hosting an international anti-corruption summit in 2016, or in actively trying to think about how to tackle money laundering. The UK sees itself as sitting very much at the top table when it comes to leading the global anti-corruption drive and whilst there aren’t league titles to be won in anti-corruption, it’s not hard to imagine why, if pushed, Arsenal might be seen as a decent comparator.

Yet many outsiders looking in are more likely to see something very different. They won’t see Arsenal. They’ll see the talk and the action that’s come out of the UK and they won’t dismiss it out of hand, but they may well draw altogether different conclusions as to where the UK sits. The UK’s anti-corruption plan and indeed its anti-corruption strategy are now dated. Countless corruption and ethics-related scandals have befallen successive Conservative administrations. Enablers of corruption play outsized roles in helping some of the world’s worst people invest their money in the UK. Those outside anti-corruption observers may well, in other words, see much less the Arsenal here and much more of, say, Everton. 

Everton are one of the grand old names of English football. The club is rich in history. It has been in the top flight of English football for 119 of the league’s 123 seasons. Everton have won the league title nine times and indeed have been successful on the European stage. Over many years they have been able to compete with the best and they subsequently have a name that still resonates the world over. 

Yet Everton, much like the UK more broadly, have been poorly run for a number of years. They get through managers almost as quickly as the Conservative Party does Prime Ministers. Everton can and do spend large sums of money, but they often do so poorly and without any real strategic thought. There is plenty of actionism and little tangible strategic direction. Internally, their supporters protest loudly about things going wrong. There’s not much evidence that those at the top listen.

Everton currently they sit in the relegation zone of the EPL. The club hasn’t ended up in this perilous position on the back of a run of bad luck; complacency, mismanagement and an unwillingness to sort their deep-rooted problems out has, over a number of years, led to the club peering dangerously over the relegation precipe. 

Everton may well soon find themselves out of the top flight and in the Championship, the second tier of English football. The UK, sitting 18th in the CPI at the moment, could also itself itself doing much the same thing; a country that suddenly wakes up to find that it’s in a new corruption reality that it spent too long trying not to recognise.

It’s not too late for either Everton or the UK to change things. But time is most certainly ticking. Quick fixes are only going to be one part of stabilising both ships. In terms of the need to fight corruption, that means the UK at least admitting that it is much less Arsenal and way more Everton than it perhaps cares to admit. 

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What does the Corruption Perceptions Index tell us about corrupt countries?

Professor Robert Barrington looks at Transparency International (TI)’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and questions why commentators use the term ‘corrupt country.’

Photo by Fernando Arcos/pexels

What does the annual CPI, launched this week, tell us about corrupt countries? Absolutely nothing. There are two reasons for that.

First, the CPI is an index of perceptions of corruption in the public sector. It tells us nothing about the private sector, or the role of financial institutions or professional enablers – usually located in countries with good CPI scores – in facilitating global flows of corrupt capital. The CPI does what it says on the tin: it is an index of perceptions of public sector corruption. That’s what it aims to measure, and not the many other aspects of corruption that there are.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is simply no such thing as a ‘corrupt country’. Yet the term is widely used.  For example, Boris Johnson, when accused of corruption as Prime Minister, responded “I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country”. You can guarantee that many of the headlines around this year’s CPI results, as in past years, will be along the lines ‘Most corrupt countries in the world revealed‘. Likewise, many lists will appear, based on the CPI, with headings such as ‘These are the world’s most – and least – corrupt countries’ – that  particular example being from the World Economic Forum. Even TI itself has in the past fallen into the trap of using such terminology.

What is wrong with the notion of  a ‘corrupt country’? Well, it is a term that has no meaning – it is just a convenient shorthand, which no sensible commentator on corruption, or student, should ever use. It implies that a country is itself corrupt. What does that really mean? Assuming a country is composed of citizens, institutions, sectors and government – precisely which of these needs to be corrupt, and how much, for it to be a ‘corrupt country’? Does the corruption extend to all, or the majority of its citizens? Or is it that the public and private sector and government institutions are all or mostly corrupt, but not the citizens? Or is the claim that there is just a lot of corruption everywhere, such that it is part of the country’s DNA?  

In reality, life is unfailingly very much more complex than an entire country being corrupt. There can be differences between regions; between specific institutions, where one Minister is a reformer and the other is on the take; between public and private sector; and most often, between a government elite that is harvesting money for its own purposes, and the citizens and companies from whom it is harvested. Other surveys show that it is those citizens who in general feel most strongly about the injustices of the corruption of which they are the primary victims, illustrating why it is inaccurate to label them as constituting a ‘corrupt country’ without differentiating the victims from the perpetrators. 

This might sound like pedantry, but it’s actually quite important. If you believe that tackling corruption successfully requires a good understanding of the problem, then the blanket notion of a ‘corrupt country’ is likely to be a very poor starting point. For instance, if a country is corrupt, it might seem reasonable to avoid sending it aid or (in the case of Ukraine) weapons. Whereas if the health ministry is corrupt, you might try to channel aid directly to citizens, or if a particular branch of the military is corrupt, you might want to focus arms transfers to other branches.

There are alternative descriptions that give much better insights, and do not write off in two words a country’s citizens or culture as being inherently corrupt. For the CPI itself, perhaps the best would be:

‘There are high rates of public sector corruption in country x’ (or for the pedant, ‘experts perceive there to be high rates of public sector corruption in country x’).

Of course, this does not take into account variances in the public sector, or the blurred lines in some economies between public and private sectors – for example outsourced public services – but it does reflect the CPI’s results more precisely than saying  ‘x is a corrupt country’.

At a certain point, if most of a public sector is thoroughly corrupt, it is a fair conclusion that this is reflective of extensive, perhaps systemic, corruption in government (for example, Russia). There is no obvious cut-off point in the CPI scores at which this can definitively be said to be the case, and of course it does not reflect the fact that there might be a recently-elected reforming government (for example, Ukraine). But for those at the lower end of the CPI scores, sensible alternatives to ‘corrupt country’ might be:

‘The government of country x is characterised by corruption’ – or in more extreme cases, ‘the government of country x is systemically corrupt’.

What else might be said? About the CPI, perhaps not much: it is a blunt instrument whose purpose has moved over time more towards communication than analysis. But importantly, the CPI is only one of several indices and surveys. In fact, the field of corruption measurement is having a bit of a renaissance, not least due to the work of my colleague Liz David-Barrett and a UNODC project led by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. One obvious conclusion is that given the number of sources that are now available, it is possible to get a better insight by considering several sources together. From which you might be able to say:

‘There is a high prevalence of corruption in country x’ or

‘There are corrupt(ed) institutions in country x, such as the police or judiciary’ – or ‘the police and judiciary are institutionally corrupt in country x’.

This latter example takes us from the country level to specific institutions, and in terms of a real understanding of the problem of corruption, the more granular, the more helpful. The CPI-style approach does tend to lock us into looking broad brush at country level, however accurate you try to make your terminology.  

The CPI has been around for nearly thirty years, and during that time has attracted a great deal of criticism – while still being the most widely-used and often-cited index of corruption. To its credit, TI has responded to much of the criticism, especially around methodology and transparency of the underlying data. In its early years, when it was the only game in town for corruption measurement, it is entirely understandable that both TI and others should use it as a proxy for a country’s overall levels of corruption. And where it is a government that is corrupt, that falls within most general definitions of the public sector, and it is easy to see why a government may have been taken as representative of the whole country. But time and thinking have moved on, and perhaps the most relevant remaining criticism of the CPI relates to how it is misapplied, with loose terminology such as ‘corrupt country’ exemplifying how an index that is actually doing one thing can so easily be misrepresented as something else.

At minimum, TI has a responsibility to avoid adding fuel to the fire of misrepresentation, as Harvard professor Matthew Stephenson periodically points out, by being punctilious in its own analyses and press releases. But perhaps more could also be done by TI and others to make sure that the CPI is used and cited based on what it says, not on the basis of what it does not say.

So when you look at the headlines, and lists, and press releases around this year’s CPI, don’t slip into lazy thinking such as ‘country x is more corrupt than country y’ or ‘z is obviously a corrupt country’. I’ve no doubt that I have done that myself at times, but nobody should be doing so – we stop and think about what that really means, and then speak or write words that match the meaning rather than using a shorthand that is ultimately meaningless.

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The IACC: Good, but can be even better

The International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) took place in Washington DC from 6-11 December 2022. The CSC’s Dan Hough reflects on an intriguing week.

The United States Capitol Building. Photo credit: Thomas Hawk/ Flickr

The International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) is the calling card of the international anti-corruption community. In December 2022 over 2,000 participants from all round the world came together in Washington DC for this biennial event. The key questions driving discussions at the 2022 jamboree were ones that anti-corruption activists everywhere will easily recognise; which anti-corruption policies, approaches, strategies and tactics work in affecting change? Which of these have had less success and why might that have been the case? What needs to be done differently? How best can the anti-corruption agenda (continue to) be meaningfully mainstreamed?

The questions that were asked through five days of at times lively discussion are certainly intellectually challenging. Implementing any answers is also practically far from straightforward. Be that as it may, those questions have relevance round the globe – corruption remains far from a preserve of any one set of countries – and that was reflected in the fact that participants had travelled from far and wide to be there.

Those participants were generally activists, although there was also the usual smattering of academics, lawyers and members of various governmental organisations. Although this particular academic has been thinking about corruption and anti-corruption for longer than he cares to remember, it was my first in-person experience of how an IACC works in practice. It was an enlightening one.

The thing you immediately notice is the enthusiasm and energy that so many activists bring to the event. There is an infectious sense of impatience and indeed a need to ‘do something’. The feeling of bamboozlement at the many acronyms evident in the conference programme soon gives way to an awareness that organisations both large and small are trying their best to make the world a better place. For regular participants in big political science conferences where methodological disputes are par for the course, where your statistical approach of choice often becomes the key discussion point and where process often seems to be much more important than outcome, the feeling of relevance and real-worldness at the IACC came as a real breath of fresh air.

The panels inevitably focussed on some themes more than others. The challenge of getting beneficial ownership legislation right was a constant topic, as was the issue of de-kleptification (a term that even those who spend their living thinking about it admit is decidedly clunky) and the nexus between climate change and corruption. Examples of folks engaging with all of these things were much to the fore.

Plus, of course, one of the key purposes of an event like this is to bring people together so that they can take discussions forward informally. The IACC offers a forum to (horrible though the term is) network, see if ideas might fly and to compare notes on how much progress is being made. The world of Zoom undoubtedly adds something to our lives, but meeting, chatting, discussing and pondering also happens offline in the corners away from the conference rooms. IACC really is an excellent forum for doing all of that.

Three gaps

And yet. Much as the event was both interesting and at times positively inspiring, I couldn’t help but feel that a few tricks were being missed somewhere along the line. Three things in particular spring to mind.

Firstly, as noted above, academia (particularly in the USA) can have a fixation on methodology. Discussing which type of multivariate regression analysis to use really can be the main point running through papers given at conferences organised by bodies such as the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) and the American Political Science Association (APSA). No one can accuse participants at the IACC of falling into that particular trap.

However, at times things did go too far the other way. Anecdotes and stories obviously have their place, particularly in terms of talking about lived experiences. Stepping back and injecting (just a bit of) analytical rigour does nonetheless help in coming up with more sustainable solutions. Method and theory matter not because they appear to some to add a veneer of academic respectability. It’s more that they add more backbone to the explanations and they offer great opportunities to develop solutions that aren’t relevant to one (often quite) specific context.

Secondly, there will always be some issues that get less airtime than they others. That can be for a whole load of eminently understandable reasons. Many of those who bemoan the absence of something can also actually be saying that what they *really* want is more of what they themselves research on/engage with. That’s a circle that conference organisers will never be able to completely square.

Yet it seems odd that a conference on corruption that’s being held in Washington DC engaged very little with the role that money plays in all of this. Lawrence Lessig famously talked of Congress – a building little more than three miles from the conference venue – being the home of institutional corruption. Politics ‘inside the beltway’ is the politics of influence-trading, lobbying and financial gain. That there are corruption stories to be told there would have been obvious to more or less all participants …. yet there was very little specifically on any of that. I’ve little doubt that some of this comes down to the conference organisers creating a programme around the suggested panel topics that were put to them. Maybe there just wasn’t the willingness to talk about these things. Perhaps this is where the organisers might need to go out and approach the experts to come and get involved. Either way, it felt odd that this got so little traction.

One example illustrated that quite nicely. Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State and an all round big hitter in the Washington world of politics, spent two hours at the IACC on Friday evening. He acted as a question-master in a (rather oddly named) fireside chat with three (impressive) anti-corruption activists. All fine. But maybe someone in Blinken’s position could have been asked to say something substantive? It would probably have been unreasonable to have expected Blinken to subject himself to a rigorous Q & A from what could have been an unpredictable audience, but to get him along and then for him to say, well, basically nothing seemed rather odd somehow.

Finally, corruption is about power. Discussions of power lead you inexorably to discussions of politics. As Mark Philp persuasively argued back in 1997, your understanding of corruption will be indelibly linked to what you understand the appropriate nature of politics to be. For some, politics is about deal-making and finding ways of getting things done. For others, those same deals and the same drive to get achieve goals can be symptoms of a system where corruption is very much in the game.

Why does that matter? It matters because purity of principle was much in evidence at the IACC. And that is in many ways to be lauded. But enacting change involves engaging with folks who you might not necessarily want to engage with. It involves compromise. It involves forgoing some things in order to achieve broader aims. In other words, moving the anti-corruption agenda forward involves engaging in politics.

There was very little at the IACC on how to get things done. We heard lots about protest (and that’s good), we heard lots about awareness-raising (and that’s good, too). But how do you get those turkeys (in power) to vote for Christmas (a Christmas that might well see them lose portions their power)? Constructive engagement has to be a part of the armoury, and more analysis of how that sort of constructive engagement might pan out in practice would have been really enlightening. To be clear, the IACC is a super event and it has a lot going for it. I’m certainly looking forward to the next one (scheduled for 2024 and taking place in Lithuania). In the spirit of nothing ever being perfect, I do nonetheless think that it might well be possible to make a good event even better.

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Kickback – the global anti-corruption podcast: now hosted by the CSC

The Centre for the Study of Corruption (CSC) is to take over as host of Kickback – the global anticorruption podcastProfessor Robert Barrington outlines the plans.

It feels like quite a responsibility to be taking on the podcast which heads the list in CIPE’s run-down of top ten anti-corruption podcasts. Created in 2019 by Harvard law professor Matthew Stephenson, and Nils Kobis and Christopher Starke of the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN), Kickback has quickly established itself as the turn-to podcast for in-depth thinking on corruption.

Kickback is not a current affairs commentary, so episodes from three years ago by luminaries such as Susan Rose-AckermannPaul Heywood and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi are as relevant today as when they were first broadcast.  In contrast to some podcasts with several hundred episodes in frequent short bulletins, Kickback’s style is more long-read editorial than twitter thread.  Serious experts, looking in depth at corruption, corruption theory and approaches to tackling corruption – but presented in an accessible way.

The best non-commercial podcasts series like Kickback are community efforts – in this case, produced for a community of scholars and practitioners by a community of scholars and practitioners. If you add together all those in government, business, academia and civil society with a professional interest in corruption, you probably have a community of some tens of thousands of people worldwide.  We want to serve that community as best we can.

Looking at the stats, we can see that most regular listeners are in the USA, followed by the UK and Europe, with clusters around university cities.  We want to continue to cater for these audiences, while increasing the listenership in other areas of the world, notably Africa and Asia.  We can also see that episodes which have been promoted via other channels, such as the CIPE competition, have the highest number of listeners.  So we are interested in partnering with others to increase the distribution.

What are we planning for Kickback?  First off, we’d like to hear from anyone who has a good interview to suggest.  Who would you most like to hear talk about corruption for 45 minutes?  Please write and let us know.  Secondly, we want to keep the mix of practitioners and academics, from all disciplines  – the heritage is both the ICRN and Harvard Law School, and that has given a great range of insights and experiences.  Finally, we may vary the length and style from time to time as we try to keep up with the ever-changing world of podcasts.  But for those who like Kickback as it is – rest assured, changes will be evolution not revolution.

Let me finish by celebrating what a great few years Kickback has had under the superb stewardship of Matthew Stephenson, Nils Köbis and Chris Starke.  What a great job – and a hard act to follow!  Our own CSC team will consist of Liz David-Barrett as the lead interviewer, with a supporting cast of Robert BarringtonDan HoughSam Power (that’s the Sussex one, not the head of USAID) and Tom Shipley.  You can hear most of us already on previous episodes of Kickback, talking about state capture, sports integrity, the UK Bribery Act and political corruption.

One notable absence amongst the Kickback episodes is interviews with Matthew, Nils and Chris themselves.  We’ll be remedying that over the coming months – starting with Liz David-Barrett speaking to Matthew Stephenson about what he has found most interesting in Kickback’s 83 episodes to date.

To get in touch with suggestions about who you would most like to hear, contact

Where can I find Kickback?

What should I listen to first?

Try these:

Michael Johnston on syndromes of corruption

Caryn Peiffer on social norms

Jodi Vittori on corruption and the US military operation in Afghanistan

Daniel Kaufmann on state capture

Michel Sapin and Valentina Lana on anti-corruption approaches in France

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Johnson’s legacy: Boris Johnson and the regulation of football

A recent fan-led review of football governance has come up with wide-ranging and widely-supported recommendations. In the fourth installment of our series, Dan Hough, Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, discusses the Johnson administration’s part in getting the ball rolling, assessing that the hard bit – implementing reforms – clearly starts now.

When talking about Boris Johnson’s legacy it’s unlikely that many people would start with a discussion of football. The man himself claimed to be a football fan but was hardly renowned as a genuine supporter of the ‘beautiful game’; after all, it was Johnson who once claimed he “supported all London clubs” and when asked in 2013 if he’d ever like to be Prime Minister, used a rugby analogy, commenting that “if the ball came out of the back of the scrum he’d have a crack at it”. Drinking a pinot grigio at Twickenham would subsequently seem much more Johnson’s natural terrain than standing on the old Shed End at Chelsea or the North Bank at Highbury.

A fan-led review and an independent regulator

Be that as it may, Johnson’s government inevitably found itself engaging with discussions of football. In the UK, it’s hard for it to be otherwise. The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promised a fan-led review of football governance and indeed that review, ultimately led by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, became a cornerstone of the government’s thinking in this area. It aimed to “to support and explore our analysis of the issues in the game, and to provide views on what might be done about them” and promised to make a significant contribution to righting some of football’s wrongs.

The recommendations were published in November 2021 (see here for a good summary) and the UK government was rhetorically supportive of them. Back in March 2022 Johnson was unequivocal in his support for one of the most eye-catching of those recommendations; the creation of an independent regulator for English football over and above the Football Association (FA). The regulator would make a significant contribution towards helping put the game’s finances on more of an even keel and to oversee who owned clubs and indeed the corporate governance structures that they then presided over.

Johnson, speaking in Parliament on 23 March 2022, again stressed “that we should indeed have an independent regulator for football” and he once more confirmed that in comments made at the most recent English professional club to go bankrupt, Bury FC, on 25 April.

In the Queen’s Speech on 10 May 2022, his government reiterated the importance of protecting clubs’ long-term financial sustainability as well as the broader interests of both clubs and fans. The expectation was that the regulator would do this and indeed that he/she would be in place by the end of the calendar year.

Liz Truss, the saviour of English football?

There’s therefore plenty of evidence of Boris Johnson and his government making positive noises about reforming football governance. Three years on from the 2019 election triumph, however, the noises have – in the cold light of day – still not built up to very much.

The big question is now whether Liz Truss is up to the job of, as the respected chief executive of Fair Game, Niall Couper, put it, “sav[ing] our national game”. Being positive, it’s mooted that a White Paper will be published in October although there is already talk of bandwidth concerns and the government’s in-tray being simply too large to be able to deal with this now. Furthermore, there are also rumours that plans for a Premier League transfer levy – something that the fan-led review explicitly recommended – will be quietly ditched. If that goes, one can’t help but wonder what else might go with it.

Talk is one thing, but action?

Given that, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether Johnson’s legacy will be as familiar in this area as it is in many others; plenty of bravado and belligerence that inevitably, sooner or later, turns into little more than bluster and bluff.

The fact that he couldn’t complete the reforms he promised means that the buck now passes to his successor. Truss has more football-supporting credentials than Johnson (for example, since becoming an MP in the area she’s grown to be a Norwich City fan and has indeed been seen at games) but there are already indications that neither she nor her advisors have any real interest in changing the way that the game is run. Bringing in governance reforms that powerful players within the game may well oppose is highly unlikely to be at the top of her to-do list.

Truss’s next steps will become apparent in due course, but in terms of Johnson and his legacy the cynic might say that this is the way that his administration generally rolled. That might be convenient (and in this case essentially untestable), but it would also be a little unfair. The fan-review did come up with widely respected recommendations and Johnson was out on his ear before they could realistically be implemented.

However, setting up a commission and offering it rhetorical support was always going to be the easy bit and Johnson will in all likelihood have known that. The more pressing question is how you deal with the politics of implementing the recommendations. Whether Liz Truss’s regime has the resilience to face down the vested interests and make at least a small contribution to bringing some financial sanity to the way football works remains the big challenge.

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Johnson’s legacy: Will Truss reverse the UK’s slide into state capture?

CSC Director Liz Dávid-Barrett has previously evidenced worrying patterns of behaviour from the Johnson administration, from attacks on accountability institutions to the installation of political allies in key public appointments and excessive use of secondary legislation. In the third installment of our series, she highlights the key areas that will indicate whether or not the Truss government is likely to shore up the UK’s increasing institutional vulnerability to state capture.

Under Boris Johnson, I have argued, the UK started to slide into a condition known as state capture. This is where a narrow interest group seeks to consolidate its power through improperly changing the rules of the game and influencing the implementation of those rules, while at the same time disabling institutions that seek to hold them to account. I set out the evidence on Johnson’s moves towards state capture in the keynote speech at this years’ Constitution Society conference, highlighting the way that he eviscerated parliament’s ability to scrutinise legislation, parachuted political allies into key regulatory roles, and treated the media and judiciary as illegitimate obstacles.

Will the change of Prime Minister lead to a reversal of this trend? This is an important question. The problem of reversing state capture is something that many are grappling with around the world. In South Africa, for example, where the captors are now out of power and Ramaphosa is trying to re-build. But also in Hungary, where opposition groups are thinking about how best to restore the integrity of institutions that have been gutted and politicised, should they get the opportunity to do so.

In the case of Truss, it’s not clear that she sees Johnson’s record of capture as a problem or wants to reverse it. Overall, it’s too early to say, but here are some things to look out for in her first few months in office. 

First of all, the appointments that a new PM makes are a key early indication. Do cabinet appointments appear to be based more on merit and expertise, or on loyalty and reward? The former indicates someone who values competence, while the latter betrays someone who wants to use their patronage power to build alliances. And how deep do changes in the civil service go? Is the new PM willing to preserve continuity by trusting civil servants who served previous administrations or rather keen to impose more loyal allies, even at the cost of losing institutional knowledge?

Truss’s initial steps here are somewhat concerning. She has awarded key cabinet roles to long-time friends and failed to retain expertise where it is embodied in individuals who may represent a challenge to her authority.

Some of the people she has appointed to the most senior roles are those who were fully signed up to Johnson’s approach. Her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, has made a number of comments about judges “interfering in politics”, and, when Owen Paterson MP was found to have engaged in paid advocacy, cast aspersions on the independent Commissioner for Standards. Meanwhile, the new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has signalled a wish to leave the European Convention of Human Rights, another potential indicator of a government looking to ditch limitations on its powers.

The firing of Tom Scholar, permanent secretary to the Treasury, further suggests that Truss does not value skills and experience, and wants to install someone more likely to look favourably on her tax cut plans. Of course, the very practice of firing someone from a supposedly non-political appointment sends a strong message to other civil servants about how they are expected to behave.

Second, observe how Truss deals with the accountability institutions that are supposed to check her power. What we should hope to see here is a willingness to allow parliament time to fully assess her legislative agenda, or to see her and her team engage openly with the media to encourage discussion of their plans.

Again, worrying signs during the leadership campaign included an announcement that she does not need an ethics adviser, along with her cancellation of a planned final debate with opponent Rishi Sunak and a failure to respond to an ITV request for an interview. To be fair, these were before she took on the role of premier and by contrast, she received good reviews for her first performance at PMQs, with some commentators remarking on her willingness to engage with and answer questions.

Third, look out for how Truss responds when the first integrity breaches or scandals concerning her own government emerge. These are difficult to predict, but when instances of misconduct come to light, it is critical to see how she handles them. Will she allow the institutions to do their job, or seek to ignore or undermine them as Johnson did with the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests and with the Owen Paterson case? Indeed, a first test case here might be how she reacts to the results of the Privileges Committee’s current inquiry into whether Johnson acted in contempt of the House of Commons.  

Under Johnson, many of the institutions proved resilient under pressure and pushed back. I concluded my Constitution Society keynote by arguing that the UK was not yet captured, but it was more vulnerable. Will Truss help shore up those institutions, or hasten their demise?

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Johnson’s legacy: Corruption and anti-corruption under Boris Johnson

In the second installment of our series on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice Robert Barrington examines the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Johnson administration’s record on the fight against corruption and highlights some areas to keep an eye on in order to assess the direction of Liz Truss’s leadership in this sphere.

U.S. State Department photo/ Public Domain

Six years ago, the UK was aspiring to be a world leader in the global fight against corruption. David Cameron’s Anti-Corruption Summit, convened just a few weeks before the Brexit vote, was high on aspiration and ambition. Forty-odd countries produced around 650 pledges, and the UK and US were acknowledged and praised for taking a leadership role.

With much to distract it, the momentum was lost under Theresa May’s government, though the rhetoric and commitment remained. Progress was limited, but the position looked recoverable with a suitable injection of energy and political will.

So, what of the Johnson years?  Regrettably, it’s not a pretty picture. Any sense of leadership in the wider world has been lost. Britain itself looks tainted and hypocritical, and all this has happened with the world watching open-mouthed.

Here are five things that went wrong:

1. Covid procurement and chumocracy. The catchy word chumocracy was coined early in the Johnson administration to describe the penchant for appointing political allies and ‘cronies’ to public positions, ministerial posts and the House of Lords. It started to look more distinctly corrupt around Covid procurement: the rules were suspended, contracts were awarded to Conservative Party donors and those with links to government, and fortunes were made – even when the equipment delivered was unusable or of poor quality. Investigations and Inquiries may reveal whether it was truly corrupt: for now, it bears all the hallmarks of corruption, and so needs to be disproven.

2. Standards in public life. In the end, even the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion resigned, following in the footsteps of two independent Ethics Advisers. The multiple breaches of the Nolan Principles are well documented elsewhere. Overseas observers were generally shocked to see this in UK; some rejoiced that it confirmed what they had been saying for years. Either way, it did Britain no favours.

3. The abolition of DFID. Irrespective of the political or economic logic for abolishing DFID, it had established a reputation for leadership on anti-corruption policies and programming. Savage budget cuts and a notable de-prioritisation of corruption as an issue have meant that the FCDO is seen to have diminished rather than maintained that reputation.

4. Johnson’s performance at the Summit for Democracy. President Biden had laid on a sort-of successor to the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit. The Prime Minister was invited to speak, and it was a golden opportunity for a re-positioning of the UK as being at the heart of these issues, after some understandably lost years. Sadly, it was more like his infamous Peppa Pig speech at the CBI conference: tone deaf to the occasion, lacking in substance and responding to the world’s needs and expectations with rhetorical flourishes and platitudes.

5. Post-Brexit procurement reforms. Another golden opportunity, which started with good intent to create a world-leading system that would deter corruption in one of the highest-risk areas of government, and prevent companies with a track record of corruption from holding UK public contracts. Then came the lobbying, the watering down and the delays. And so far, no new law at all, good or bad.

But surely something positive must have been done to tackle the corruption that Cameron and May declared was a key aspect of improving national security and prosperity? There was still the well-respected civil service team in the Joint Anti-Corruption Unit, and a Champion (until he resigned).  And indeed, there were a few positives – for example:

  • The work of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee continued in spite of the Johnson government, and did a superb job in highlighting the UK’s role in facilitating grand corruption and kleptocracy, and the threat that posed to the country.
  • As the Ukraine invasion increased the pressure to do something about Russian money in the UK, the Economic Crime Act was passed. This included the requirement to register the beneficial owners of property owned by overseas companies, which had been promised in 2016; and some improvement to Unexplained Wealth Orders.
  • The UK’s commitment to public registers of beneficial ownership was a message that was further promoted around the world, with some success.

The Johnson legacy will be hard to recover from on the global stage. But there are a number of things the Truss government could do to improve things. There is no sense so far that these are a priority, although there is a glimmer of hope that the new Security Minister, in whose brief these things fall, had shown understanding and commitment in his role as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Here are some tests by which we can assess Prime Minister Truss on her own leadership in this area:

  • The speed of the delivery of the UK’s new Anti-Corruption strategy – due in December 2022 – and its strength will be an early indication of the Truss government’s commitment to anti-corruption domestically.
  • It is worth keeping an eye on the second Economic Crime Bill in order to assess whether its ambition matches the scale of the problem.
  • The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s Standards Matter recommendations should be adopted wholesale. Indeed, they should probably be strengthened given that, since their formulation, the Johnson government bequeathed a greater insight into how the system of checks and balances for public standards can be evaded.
  • You can have all the laws in the world, but will likely make no progress without law enforcement resourcing. Experts estimate that the resources for key agencies like the SFO and the NCA’s anti-corruption unit need to be at least doubled.
  • When, or if, the government appoints an Ethics Adviser and Anti-Corruption Champion, and who they are, will give considerable insight into the government’s approach.

We need just look across the Atlantic to see how damaging a negative reputation for corruption can be to a country’s international standing and strategic relationships.  It is not a legacy to be proud of; but the new Prime Minister can make decisions which will help to repair some of the damage.

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Johnson’s Legacy: Standards in Public Life

In the first of our series on the legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership as it relates to corruption Rebecca Dobson Phillips, Lecturer in Corruption Analysis at the University of Sussex, discusses how Johnson’s actions exposed the compromises inherent in the system of standards in public life and reflects on the implications for our understanding of both political and bureaucratic accountability.

It is difficult to reflect on Johnson’s legacy as Prime Minister, without observing the apparent contempt he displayed for many of the rules and conventions that are designed to hold those in power to account. Even before his premiership, his reputation was littered with concerns about his approach to the truth, his close encounters with conflicts of interest and his susceptibility to diplomatic gaffes—at least one of which likely resulted in serious personal costs for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. But it is as PM that his maverick attitude to accountability has really tested the UK establishment.

It’s unnecessary to recite all his alleged transgressions. But from the prorogation of parliament and his failure to sanction breaches of the Ministerial Code to being accused of stuffing the Lords with Tory donors and his suspected misleading of parliament on breaching COVID rules, it is clear that in appearance at least Johnson’s premiership has pushed the boundaries of the expected and acceptable. However, despite much performative outrage and some genuine concern that his actions could or would fatally weaken the system of public standards they appear to have done little more than illuminate many of the compromises that were already inherent in it.

His prorogation was deemed unlawful. His party’s attempt to bend the rules in Owen Paterson’s favour when he was found to have engaged in “paid advocacy” ultimately failed. There have never been robust safeguards on appointments to the House of Lords, so PMs have always had considerable leniency in awarding peerages. His Ethics Adviser—whom he was highly criticised for disregarding—was always just that, an “adviser”, and his advice could therefore be ignored if expedient. The PM already had ultimate authority over the Ministerial Code, with the power to change it, initiate investigations into breaches and to decide on sanctions.  

Indeed, given his reputation, substantive changes to the system of public standards are surprisingly limited. His update to the Ministerial Code in April 2022 was met with indignation for removing the expectation that Ministers should resign when found to have breached the Code, except in cases of “knowingly misleading parliament”. However, it was in line with a Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) recommendation, which suggested graduated sanctions as opposed to a blanket expectation to resign. It is true that Johnson did not implement a range of other CSPL suggestions that would have strengthened the hand of his Ethics Adviser, including handing over authority to initiate investigations and determine breaches, but then neither had any PM before him.

Johnson’s government was eventually brought down by “sleaze”—his apparent support for and promotion of an MP accused of sexual misconduct—but it was the political (rather than bureaucratic) fallout this caused within his own party that ultimately removed him. While he remains under investigation by the House of Commons Privileges Committee for contempt of Parliament, which could lead to the highest level of bureaucratic sanction—a recall petition and by-election in his constituency—this too ultimately ends in a political process, albeit one involving only a tiny section of the electorate. There is currently sustained political pressure to halt the investigation, which has been bolstered by a legal “opinion” on its legality, and there is wild speculation about Johnson’s eventual return to front-bench politics; neither possibility can be ruled out.

Perhaps then the real legacy of Johnson’s premiership in this area is that we have been supplied with a case study on how the system works when faced with a PM that eschews controls on their behaviour beyond the purely political. Those concerned about the failures of the standards system to hold Johnson to account for his numerous transgressions therefore need to consider the delicate balance between bureaucratic and political accountability in the UK system and ask: Is this a bureaucratic problem or a political one? Does it need a rules-based solution or a political/democratic one?

There is risk involved in focusing on the inadequacy of the rules and individual breaches at the expense of a more holistic view of the essential role of political accountability. Ultimately politics rules the fates of politicians; and yet our political system seems woefully inadequate to the task of sanctioning those that fail to adhere to even the most basic standards of public life.

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Bosnia, corruption and state capture

Source: papatyayameftun/Pexels

Professor Robert Barrington and Berina Glusac from the Centre for the Study of Corruption’s MA in Corruption & Governance examine the political situation in Bosnia Herzegovina and look at the role that corruption has played in the crisis.

Unless you are a dedicated Balkans-watcher, you may well have missed the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is amidst its biggest political crisis since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995.

Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s complex tripartite presidential structure, declared in late 2021 that the Serb-run part of BiH, Republika Srpska (RS), would withdraw cooperation and involvement with key state-wide institutions, in violation of the 1995 peace agreements. He announced that the Bosnian judiciary, security, and intelligence organisations would no longer be allowed to operate in the RS, which would instead operate its own alternative structures.

Dodik makes no secret of the fact that this is a precursor to secession, although he claims it would be achieved by peaceful means. This naturally leads to a reflection on the heavy price that was paid during the war of the 1990s. In Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, 100,000 people were killed and two million displaced. Over 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys were killed in the Srebrenica massacre alone in 1995. Thousands of bodies have still not been recovered three decades later; new mass graves are discovered each year, and most of the countryside remains covered with active land mines. The Genocide is relevant to the situation today; Dodik denies that such events took place and uses his control of the media to support his message. This plays strongly to his nationalist support base.

What has this do to with corruption? Quite a lot. Shortly after Dodik’s declaration, he was placed on a sanctions list by the US Treasury for ‘Destabilizing and corrupt activity.’ Like so many US announcements, this has produced a document that gives a useful read-out – presumably based on the US’s exceptional intelligence capabilities – of what Dodik has been up to. The main charges are the cronyistic allocation of public contracts and monopolies from whose proceeds Dodek dispensed bribes and patronage. The relevant wording of the US Treasury announcement is:

“Dodik is… responsible for or complicit in, or having directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption related to the Western Balkans. Specifically, he has established a patronage network in BiH from which he and his associates benefit. As one example of his corrupt actions, Dodik has provided government contracts and monopolies in the RS directly to close business associates. With his corrupt proceeds, Dodik has engaged in bribery and additional corrupt activities to further his personal interests at the expense of citizens in the RS.”

These mentions of other ‘corrupt activities’ hint that the US government has more information, but there is no fuller detail. More may emerge in due course, but for now it is enough to know that we must consider corruption to be part of this complex picture.

BiH’s circumstances are unique, and it would be unwise to extrapolate general lessons. However, this situation does illustrate some of the common elements of de-democratisation and state capture – albeit in this case, it is a geographical segment of the state that has been captured.

What we can see here is a politician using corruption both to strengthen his political position, and for personal financial benefit. In terms of state capture, there are some classic ingredients: First of all, a democratically-elected populist politician using nationalist messages and distorted truths to gain and maintain power; a deliberate attempt to dismantle or subvert key state institutions, including the judiciary; political power allocating control over state assets and resources; control over the media (the main television company is also placed on the US sanctions list), which is used to pump out fake news; and finally, a foreign policy that supports strongmen and oppressive regimes (in this case Serbia and Russia). To enrich himself and consolidate his power, Dodik uses patronage, cronyism and bribery.

In such a small country, this might pass unnoticed by the outside world were it not for two significant factors. First, there is a very real possibility of armed conflict and renewed genocide at the heart of Europe. Secondly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made central European countries, and whether they support Russia, more strategically important to the EU and NATO.

Unfortunately, although the world has learned a great deal in the past thirty years about what does and does not work in tackling corruption, there is no established exit strategy from one of the biggest problems: state capture by populist nationalists. It is a gloomy picture, but sometimes internal or external pressures can help generate a rapid turnaround. In such circumstances, having a good problem analysis will be fundamental to finding solutions. One of the important aspects of such a problem analysis will be recognising, amidst the many other complexities, the role that corruption has been playing in the unfolding situation in Bosnia Herzegovina.

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What did political parties really spend on?: Political Finance Transparency in the UK

Dr Sam Power, Lecturer in Corruption Analysis at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex has co-authored a new report on election financing during the UK 2019 General Election. The International IDEA report was co-authored with Dr Kate Dommett, University of Sheffield; Dr Amber Macintyre, Royal Holloway; and Dr Andrew Barclay, University of Sheffield. The report finds that many types of campaign activity, especially digital campaigning, is not reflected in spending categories and that different political parties are not consistently coding the same activity under the same category.

This article was originally published on the International IDEA Blog on 15 June 2022.

A Liberal Democrat counting agent watches volunteers count ballot papers in Kensington constituency general election count at Kensington Town Hall in London, U.K., on Thursday, Dec 12, 2019. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

While the the United Kingdom is often considered to have one of the most transparent political finance systems, it is still unclear how more than 1 in every GBP 10 was spent at the last UK general election. This is one of many findings from the International IDEA’s latest report, Regulating the Business of Election Campaigns: Financial Transparency in the Influence Ecosystem in the United Kingdom‘, which investigates the companies, suppliers and individuals that political parties spend money on.

Getting to grips with the flow of money in politics is essential for understanding how the wider influence ecosystem at elections operates. Suppliers consult on election messaging and polling, provide social media tools and devise large-scale advertising campaigns. And as the Cambridge Analytica Scandal showed—such services during election campaigns matter and can be the cause of great public concern.

Mapping the influence ecosystem at elections – new trends and old realities

The new report looks at the UK as a case study to begin mapping this terrain. The country has one of the most transparent political finance regimes in the world. One of the particularly novel regulations is that if a political party spends over GBP 200 on anything at an election, they are required to provide an invoice from the supplier. These invoices are then released, with other details of election spending, on the Electoral Commission’s political finance database. By going through every invoice, and manually coding the service provided into new categories, the report confirmed much that was either assumed or found things that simply were not known about election campaigning in 2019.

For example, much has been written about digital advertising and, indeed, the democratic implications of the increased use of the online space. But the UK Electoral Commission’s political finance database is yet to capture how prevalent these trends are. There is no category for ‘online’, or ‘social media’ advertising. There is simply a catch-all ‘advertising’ designation. This means that researchers attempting to gauge the extent to which advertising occurs online had to previously rely on (very educated) guesswork, often based on keyword searches for prominent examples of companies (like Facebook and Google). This neglects that other suppliers (like consultants or advertising agencies) may—as a part of the service they provide—place online ads. The report found that of the over GBP 10 million that was spent on advertising, 73 per cent was done online. And over 50 per cent of this was on social media ads specifically. This suggests, for anyone thinking about how to regulate modern political advertising, online is key.

And yet, old realities still matter. Lost amongst some of the more alarmist perceptions of this new political world is that campaigning is still very much a ground game. The Internet is not the only fruit. In fact, by far the most prominent form of spending by parties—coming in at over GBP 21 million—was through campaign materials. This includes printing posters, leaflets and leaflet delivery which make up just over 40 per cent of all spend. That is not to say that online trends aren’t concerning. A little money can go a long way at elections as it is much cheaper to advertise online. Likewise, the GBP 50,000 spent on a campaign consultant might form the message which is then put out in a GBP 2 million leaflet drop (and targeted to certain demographics on Facebook). But the fact remains, most election spend is on incredibly functional—and much less immediately newsworthy—services.

What is unclear?

Despite all this, there is much that the report cannot fully capture. During the project, the research team placed all invoices that they couldn’t categorise into a separate ‘unclear’ heading. This might happen for several reasons. It might be that a blank invoice was submitted, or no invoice was provided at all. Some were blurry, and one even had a post-it note over the description of the service. Finally, there were some that would be so vague as to be useless—like the invoice that was for ‘persuasive and shareable content for the general elections’. Whilst some of these are, of course, more unclear than others, this remains a problem. It is impossible to tell exactly what 14 per cent of total election expenditure in 2019 was spent—that is a GBP 6.6 million black hole.

What can be done?

This matters. It is currently possible to provide very little meaningful information about services, or to deliberately abstract the information that political parties disclose. Therefore, it is impossible to make a reasonable judgement about what is, or is not, a problematic democratic practice. The report suggests a number of actionable legislative reforms that should be introduced to address these transparency deficits. The categories that are used in the Electoral Commission’s database should be updated to better reflect the realities of modern campaigns, particularly as it relates to digital advertising. More should also be done to standardise invoicing practice to reduce the possibility of genuine error or deliberate obfuscation. These are small reforms that will have a big effect. They will embed the UK’s reputation as a model of best practice. More importantly, they will allow the public to better understand how elections are changing—and map the actors that operate within the wider influence ecosystem—to more carefully diagnose any larger, perhaps more existential, democratic concerns.

Political finance transparency plays a key role in safeguarding the integrity of political processes and institutions. International IDEA is committed to supporting countries in developing digital solutions for political finance reporting and disclosure and to conduct in-depth country case studies in advancing the evidence-based global policy debate for better political finance transparency.

International IDEA’s report “Regulating the Business of Election Campaigns: Financial Transparency in the Influence Ecosystem in the United Kingdom” was drafted by a team of UK experts, led by Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield) and Dr Sam Power (Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex), in collaboration with the Institute’s Money in Politics Programme. The report is available at the following link.

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