Putting research into practice to prevent corruption in public administration

Adam Graycar

By Professor Adam Graycar

Australia, by and large, cannot be regarded as having a corruption crisis as integrity, particularly in our public sector, is generally of a high standard. Yet, despite the ethical behaviour and good intent of the majority of politicians and public servants, IBAC and other integrity agencies are kept extremely busy with investigations that uncover corruption and misconduct, including the exposure of concerning irregularities, often appalling behaviour, and sometimes criminality.

My colleague Adam Masters and I have explored ways of understanding malfeasance in public administration, especially in low corruption environments. We have found there are practical ways organisations can translate these research findings to help prevent corruption in public administration.

But first, it's worth looking at the global context with which we understand and rate corruption.

The latest global Corruption Perception Index 2020 rankings places Australia at 11 out of 180 countries. For almost 20 years Australia ranked in the top 10 (least corrupt). In 2012 Australia ranked seventh with a score of 85. By 2018 we had fallen to thirteenth with a score of 77. In 2020 Australia climbed back to equal eleventh. Being ranked eleventh out of 180 is pretty good, but falling by eight points does not bode well.

This fall is reflected in other surveys into people's perceptions of corruption. When asked in the 2008 constitutional values survey 'how much trust and confidence do you have in the commonwealth government', 82 per cent of Australians answered either 'a great deal or a fair amount'. When asked the same question a decade later in 2018, that proportion had fallen to 46 per cent. The decline for state governments was less – from 57 to 46 per cent. This means that less than half of our population report that they trust government.

Our decline in global rankings and score, as well as the decline in trust that Australians have in our public institutions, is a loud wakeup call to anyone who cares about out public institutions, maintaining social stability, and our democratic process. It also raises serious questions about the ethical underpinnings of our politics and public administration.

Research on corruption in public administration

Most aspects of public administration fall within the following five categories or functions:

  • delivery of services
  • financial management
  • resource and service procurement
  • human resource management, and
  • issuing licences, concessions and permits.

We used interviews and case study materials from our files to develop a set of 20 situational measures for public administrators across these categories.

In workshops with government participants from many countries we worked to build an understanding of how to make it harder for officials to behave badly, increase the risk of being caught and reduce the rewards of their behaviour, build and value integrity, and raise awareness. We asked participants to focus on their own agency situation, as well as develop general strategic approaches.

Through these workshops, we identified that actions that can be taken to strengthen the integrity of public administration are many and varied and can involve the following:

  • be transparent in transactions
  • reduce anonymity
  • audit finances
  • audit property
  • monitor contracts
  • keep good quality records
  • embed and protect integrity
  • use high standard human resource management practices
  • assist compliance
  • neutralize peer pressure, and
  • have clear policies.

Such prevention measures are also well documented by IBAC.

Research findings

We started this research1 2 seeking lessons from successful crime prevention that can be applied to corruption prevention. The research helped us to re-think how to deliver anti-corruption responses in a low corruption environment.

We found that crime prevention techniques, such as complex passwords or extra surveillance, can only be part of any approach. And lecturing to public officials as though they had already committed an offence or were criminally inclined is counter-productive. In a low-corruption environment, language should implicitly and explicitly encourage and support honesty and integrity. 

As in crime prevention, the best and most effective approach is to encourage good governance and emphasise positive behaviour such as how agencies can build integrity and strengthen corruption prevention.

Our research shows that prevention resources are most effective when people understand how to relate it to their specific work environments and the corruption risks they are facing.

Organisations are advised to workshop prevention resources using specific examples relevant to that workplace. Sitting with your colleagues, discussing the options from the perspective of lived experience, and having leadership embrace and support the results helps put your organisation on a path to integrity and better practice.

Please contact adam.graycar@adelaide.edu.au if you would like any of the items referred to above

Useful links

1 Graycar, A., & Masters, A. B. (2018). Preventing malfeasance in low corruption environments: twenty public administration responses, Journal of Financial Crime, 25(1), 170-186.

2 Graycar, A. (Ed.) (2020). Handbook on Corruption, Ethics and Integrity in Public Administration. Cheltenham UK and Northhampton USA: Edward Elgar.