top of page
  • Writer's pictureJared Miller, CJL

Addressing Bureaucratic Corruption: Advice from and for Practitioners

By Jared Miller, Senior Associate, CJL

A screenshot of our one of our May online gatherings with representatives of Accountability Lab-Nigeria, Asal Consulting, Management Systems International-Uganda, Instintivo, and the African Union Commission.

In countries of endemic corruption, news headlines about corruption often focus on the politicians found with suitcases of cash or those seen going on shopping sprees in Dubai. But for the average citizen of these countries, corruption isn’t just about the politician’s yacht in the Mediterranean—it’s about the impact on their daily life. It’s the extra mile someone walked to get water because the money for their community’s borehole was embezzled. It’s the bribe they had to pay to get through the security checkpoint on the way to the market.

Corruption affects the public goods and services that are provided, or in many cases, are not. Central actors in these stories of corruption are civil servants—some intending to serve the public, some to serve themselves, almost all constrained by how ingrained corruption has become in the civil service. So what do you do when corruption becomes entrenched in a bureaucracy? Is there a way out?

In May, we completed a literature review on how social norms (also called social pressures) can drive corruption among civil servants and what can be done about it. To get a better sense if our findings matched those of other researchers and practitioners, we brought together twenty researchers and practitioners from across the globe to put the findings to the test. This blog presents key takeaways on why social norms matter for anti-corruption efforts and advice participants shared on how to design effective anti-corruption programs.

Lessons on social norms and anti-corruption approaches that don’t always work

First, the obvious question: why do social norms matter for civil service anti-corruption efforts? Yes, numerous resources demonstrate specific examples of how social norms can drive corruption among civil servants, but what’s the bottom line on why social norms are important? Here are three takeaways from our discussion that are relevant for practitioners:

1. Changing the official rules doesn’t mean the real rules that matter have also changed.

For the last decade, thanks to the work of researchers like Claudia Baez-Camargo, Alena Ledeneva, and Emmanuel Yeboah-Assiamah, among others, we know that changing the official rules doesn’t mean that the real rules have changed. And yet what remains telling is how pervasive the focus on formal rules and institutions still is among anti-corruption work.

Anti-corruption programs focused on improving transparency, oversight, and even hiring practices within a civil service have struggled to have lasting impact on corruption. This is in part because they did not address the informal dynamics, or more specifically the social norms also at play. While these reforms are all important, without addressing the informal dynamics, they are unlikely to effectively address corruption.

As several of our discussion participants put it, changing the official rules isn’t enough. You need to also change the social norms that influence how a civil servant actually behaves.

2. Civil servants serve the public, but that does not mean they can do everything people want them to.

Maureen Nahwera, Chief of Party for MSI-Uganda.
Maureen Nahwera, Chief of Party for MSI-Uganda.

As one participant noted, in many fragile and conflict-affected states there are socially held expectations of the goods and services a government should provide, but these expectations often fall on individual civil servants instead of the institutions. As Maureen Nahwera, the Chief of Party for MSI-Uganda, put it:

“If someone is a commissioner in a ministry, the people in their village expect the commissioner to be able to solve all of their problems; provide water, roads, access to health services, and so on. And that culture has become the norm. It is very difficult for communities to differentiate between the public goods the state is supposed to provide and what a civil servant is supposed to do; that in a way has become entrenched in a system creating a very difficult situation for civil servants.”

This echoes what I've found in the literature on this topic. Civil servants are often caught in what Gerhard Anders has described as Catch-22 situations: they are faced with tradeoffs of following the official rules of the civil service or acting on the social pressures—some of which are social norms—coming from their family, friends, and community which may lead them to engage in corruption. Without addressing the social norms at play, civil servants are likely to continue being caught in these Catch-22s where the formal rules compete with social norms and the social norms often win.

3. Civil service “best practices” can be “worst practices” in contexts of endemic corruption.

While changing the formal rules isn’t enough to address bureaucratic corruption, attempting to install the “wrong” rules can enable corruption. What qualifies as “right” and “wrong” depends on context.

International donors like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, United States, and the United Kingdom often incentivize countries to establish certain types of civil service structures by providing foreign aid contingent on specific reforms. These are often attempts to export “best practices” from Western bureaucratic models, but as both research from GI-ACE and our discussions have shown, what works in Western contexts may not work in places where corruption is systemic. For example, as Christian Schuster, Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling, and Kim Sass Mikkelsen argue, managerial practices that give civil service supervisors more flexibility in hiring, firing, and rewarding those they supervise (specifically new public management-type reforms)—practices which have had a positive impact on public service delivery in OECD countries—can actually worsen corruption in contexts of endemic corruption. The key to avoiding these negative consequences is ensuring that reforms are designed to fit a specific context and not taking a one-size-fits-all approach (more on this below).

Okay, so what do we do?

If social norms are important, how do we begin to address them in practice? This was one of the key questions we posed during the discussions. It is perhaps the most important question, but it has an incredibly frustrating answer—it depends. Strategies that work in some contexts may not work in others. Even within a single country, a strategy that may work in one civil service department may not work in another department or even in the same department in another part of the country.

This doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer. If anything, it appears to muddy the waters, but participants offered a few key pieces of advice for designing effective strategies.

1. Strategies need to be built on a detailed analysis of the corrupt behavior you are trying to address.

This seems like an obvious point, but it is one worth emphasizing. When designing programs, it is easy to look in our own toolboxes about the things we do well and want to bring that into the program design. I know I myself have done this. Before we select a tool, we first have to understand what the problem we are trying to address really is. Is it a screw that needs to be tightened or a nail that needs to be hammered? If we choose the hammer when we’re dealing with a screw, we’re more likely to make things worse.

This was the same message that emerged from our discussions: any program design needs to be based on a contextual understanding of the specific corrupt behavior being targeted. Bribery within the Ministry of Transport may be driven by different social norms than within the Ministry of Oil—and social norms may not even be the most significant driver of the behavior. Having a detailed analysis of why a civil servant is demanding bribes or diverting development projects is key for being able to have the right theory of change (some call this a problem-focused approach). We argue that any of these analyses must also consider whether social norms are factors that need to be addressed and that systems analysis is one tested way to analyze the different factors at play.

2. Multifaceted programming may be more effective than social norms-based strategies alone.

While the discussion participants emphasized the importance of social norms, there was also a consensus that social norms are often not the only factor driving corrupt behavior among civil servants. Many participants recommended multi-faceted programs to address both the social norms at play, as well as the broader conditions like inconsistent pay or a lack of transparency. For an example of what this could look like (along with examples of how to do a robust social norms analysis of corrupt behaviors) we recommend checking out the work of Leena Hoffmann at Chatham House.

In reflecting on the discussions, I’d add a third point that we did not have time to discuss during the meetings, but one I suspect many would agree with.

3. Endemic corruption is dynamic. Anti-corruption programs must also be.

A common theme throughout our discussions—and in the literature—is that endemic corruption is dynamic, meaning that it adapts. For example, in Indonesia, anti-corruption reformers introduced an e-governance procurement system to cut down on bribery and kickbacks between civil servants and private businesses. The hope was that by moving the procurement system onto an online platform, it would be harder for a civil servant to distort the process. However, instead of preventing corruption, the e-governance system redirected when and where the bribery and kickbacks happened. After the online system was introduced, civil servants and private sector businesses still colluded, they just did it as the tenders and bids were being written and submitted.

As systems of corruption adapt, so too must anti-corruption programs. This requires adaptive management, data and analysis to inform how to adapt, and (ideally) long-term programming. These are key ingredients that donors are beginning to recognize the importance of, and ones we hope they will take to heart in their growing anti-corruption agendas.

Source: Raw Pixel, Creative Commons

As Pablo Yanguas wrote, “there are no magic bullets in public sector reform.” Yes, there is no single path out of an endemically corrupt bureaucracy, but as our discussions and research have shown, we are learning more about why some paths were dead ends, other paths that exist, and about tools that help us tell the difference along the way. There are no magic bullets, but we are certainly not out of options.


Jared is a Senior Associate with CJL. Jared has more than seven years of experience as a practitioner and researcher focused on peacebuilding, corruption, and governance issues. Outside of his work with CJL, Jared is also pursuing his PhD in International Relations at The Fletcher School at Tufts University with a focus on how to strengthen accountable governance in contexts of systemic corruption. Jared is also a Fellow with the Institute for Human Security and a Research Assistant with the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Previously, Jared worked in Nigeria for Search for Common Ground on issues ranging from human rights accountability and accountable governance to youth-led efforts to counter violent extremism.


bottom of page