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  • Writer's pictureMark Pyman, Anti-Corruption Committee (Afghanistan)

SFRA: A mental model for front-line reformers

By Mark Pyman and Paul Heywood

Many in front-line positions – politicians, organization leaders, public officials, civic groups, company executives – take useful actions against corruption, despite the difficulties and potential dangers.

As we are, respectively, a long-time practitioner and an academic specializing in anti-corruption, we have worked with many such people. In discussing the practical and political problems around action, two sentiments repeatedly emerge. First, those in front-line positions feel ill-equipped to evaluate which specific corruption challenges they can feasibly address within their circumstances. Second, they often feel constrained by being complicit themselves. Especially in fragile state contexts, one’s co-existence with illegal economic activities and criminal patronage networks is usually essential to doing one’s job, as is the everyday corruption that forms part of daily living.

A different mental model

Mental models are the images, assumptions and stories that we carry in our mind about every aspect of our world. They are often tacit and unexamined, below the surface, like icebergs. Yet they determine our behaviour. In this case, the mental model is: ‘Corruption is a gigantic problem, woven into our context. Tackling it in my job will hurt me. I will target my energies elsewhere.’ Partly true, of course, but in working across many countries and sectors, we have identified elements of an alternative approach.

We have tried to codify this into a pragmatic mental model that front-line reformers can use to develop better anti-corruption strategies. Its purpose is deliberately limited: to enable context-specific thinking about which particular corruption issues could be addressed to build up a set of feasible strategy options. This mental model is called SFRA: Sector, Focus, Reformulation, Approach.


Corruption reforms are usually best addressed at the sector level, not a broader governance level.

Reformers understand their sector (health, education, telecoms, policing, etc.). They understand the economic incentives that drive their sector, the language, the social norms that govern peoples’ behavior, the sector’s political specificities. Among those working in any given sector, there’s also usually ownership and pride, powerful motivators if ways can be found to harness them.


The corruption challenge needs to be disaggregated into specific issues, then built into a common understanding of their nature, their relative importance and which ones can be feasibly tackled.

In our experience 20-40 different issues exist in each sector, recognisable to those working in it. CurbingCorruption and others have developed lists of these issues – typologies – for many sectors. Reformers use the one-page typology as the starting point for discussion, feasibility analysis and triage.

Health sector example

The health typology is shown opposite. The 42 issues were developed from the existing anti-corruption literature in the health sector, allied with practical experience from health corruption reform in Afghanistan, Greece and elsewhere. The subheadings – aligning with health nomenclature – come from the WHO definition of health systems.

Then, a shared understanding of the corruption challenge and the issues that might be tackled can be built from that issues list. For example, key groups of stakeholders can be asked to rank the relative importance and solvability of each.

Defence sector example: Burundi

In July 2014, Burundi’s top military leadership, some 30+ participants, spent a full day discussing corruption reform. The typology of corruption issues in the defence sector was used to stimulate that discussion, coupled with asking those present to vote on the relative importance of the specific issues.

Voting can sometimes be done in open discussion, but often tensions, dominant personalities, hierarchies and political divisions render openness impossible. In fragile states with endemic corruption, conducting the voting anonymously is more likely to provide a more honest, representative view.

In Burundi, the defence leadership cadre voted anonymously on their top five issues. The results (shown in the text box) revealed the main concerns to be different forms of favouritism, use of false invoices for second-hand equipment, taking corrupt advantage of the lack of defence budget line detail, and keeping the Inspector General from scrutinising defence. These results helped to build, for the first time, a common view of the specific corruption challenges in the defence sector.


The objective is to improve outcomes, not directly to reduce corruption.

Rather than address the generic problem of corruption, the objective of any anti-corruption action should instead be reformulated as reducing, removing or avoiding barriers to the achievement of mainstream delivery and performance objectives, and/or on the related change of behaviour.

Education sector example: Afghanistan

In 2016, the Afghan Minister of Education initiated a corruption analysis whose objective was to reduce corruption in school construction. From the 542 interviews, however, what emerged as the most damaging education-specific issue for Afghanistan’s future was the nepotistic appointment of teachers. That analysis led to a major reformulation of the challenge, away from construction corruption towards developing a better appointment process for teachers.


Realistic strategy options come from looking in parallel at possible technical measures and possible political/tactical approaches.

Front-line reformers are not just interested in analyzing corruption issues, but in better outcomes. With SFRA, the reform group thinks along two tracks: one of individual measures and one of political & tactical approaches. SFRA proposes that we think broadly about what might constitute an improvement measure. This includes functional measures as well as integrity and nudge measures (see diagram below) to offset the narrow conception that many have of anti-corruption: e.g. being solely about Rule-of-Law measures, or – as often seen in the health sector – about safeguarding funds. The CurbingCorruption website supports reformers by providing examples applying each type of measure in each sector.

In the political & tactical track, the reform group considers eight types of options, from broad to keeping-up-hope approaches. For example, could it be more effective to adopt a narrow strategy, energetically tackling only one aspect of the corruption problem so as to concentrate efforts and have a visible result? Or to adopt a low-profile incremental strategy, keeping the measures below the political radar?

This twin-track thinking can be usefully visualised as a single diagram. Another approach is a one-page characterisation of an otherwise limitless set of options that enables action-oriented sector professionals to see the different possibilities, then compare their political, tactical and technical merits.

Past reform strategies can also be reimagined using this matrix. For example, Georgia’s early anti-corruption strategy in 2004 can be reimagined as entailing rapid, intensive, action concentrated on major functional change in the key sectors of policing and education (G-Pol and G-Edu). In 2012, Bulgarian Defence reforms followed a broad-based approach using functional reforms, though they did not succeed. Reforms in the Burundi defence sector, on the other hand, were narrowly focused on greater defence budget transparency (Bur-Def). And a 2018 Greek government exercise to address corruption issues in the health sector proposed a two-part strategy: changes that citizens would see and gain hope from, combined with more low-profile yet fundamental functional changes (Gr-Hlth). The diagram can also be used to situate internationally proposed reform strategies, like OECD’s Integrity framework.

On the larger stage, we see SFRA as part of a long-term approach to corruption reform, where progress is almost always partial, and recognised as a normal part of the political contestation process, as emphasised by Heywood and Johnston and Fritzen. SFRA helps enable a positive, pragmatic mindset that could, in time, become embedded in the DNA and professional training of each sector.


About the Author

Dr. Mark Pyman is an experienced advocate, scholar and practitioner at the forefront of untangling the nexus between corruption and insecurity worldwide. He currently leads Curbing Corruption, an organization dedicated to assisting front-line reformers to tackle corruption on a Sector-by-Sector basis. He was a Committee Member in the Afghanistan Independent Anti-Corruption Committee (MEC) 2015-2017, prior to which he founded and led the Security and Defense Anti-Corruption Programme at Transparency International. From 2004-2015, he led the team’s engagements with Defense Ministries, including Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, India, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, UK, USA. He developed innovative methodologies for evaluating the corruption vulnerabilities of the world’s defense ministries and defense companies, ongoing analyses that are viewed as the most authoritative available. His work was instrumental in shaping the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, influencing NATO, and raising international focus on corruption in policy forums such as Munich Security Conference. He has authored or supervised some sixty publications. Prior to TI, he was Chief Financial Officer for Shell International in Gabon, China and elsewhere, roles that included responsibility for identifying, preventing and dealing with corruption issues.

Paul M Heywood, PhD, FRSA, FAcSS. Professor Paul Heywood holds the Sir Francis Hill Chair of European Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, UK. Prior to taking up his Chair in 1995, he taught at the University of Glasgow and Queen Mary College, London. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and did his doctorate at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on political corruption, institutional design and state capacity, and he is author, co-author or editor of eighteen books and more than eighty journal articles and book chapters. Recent funded research includes an ESRC/Hong Kong project on Integrity Management in the UK, HK and China; an EU FP7 project, ANTICORRP, on anti-corruption policies; and TACOD, an EU project on tackling corruption through open data. Professor Heywood is currently leader of a $7m Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence (GI-ACE) programme (2018-22), designed to identify new initiatives that can help developing countries tackle the scourge of corruption and the negative impact it has on millions of people’s lives. He is a Trustee of Transparency International-UK, where he chairs the Advocacy and Research Committee and is a member of TI’s recently created International Council. Professor Heywood is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (2002), a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (2012), and a Fellow of Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (2013).


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