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Preventing public sector corruption


As recognized by article 5 of UNCAC, core principles associated with the prevention of corruption in the public sector are the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability. In articles 7 and 8, UNCAC requires States to put in place specific measures that ensure adherence with these principles, including adopting merit-based systems for the recruitment and promotion of civil servants, prescribing criteria for election to public office, enhancing transparency in the funding of political parties, preventing conflicts of interest, promoting codes of conduct for the public sector, and establishing systems for the declaration of assets. Additional measures for preventing corruption, called for in articles 10 and 13 of UNCAC, include the promotion of stakeholder participation and open government. These and additional measures that can prevent corruption in the public sector are discussed below.

Other Modules of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption also address corruption prevention. In particular, Module 12 discusses UNCAC and other multilateral instruments that address public sector corruption, including by requiring States to adopt prevention measures, while Module 13 illustrates how corruption prevention measures form the basis of national anti-corruption policies and efforts. Further discussion of measures that enhance public integrity and ethics is available in Module 13 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics.

Codes of conduct

Corruption prevention mechanisms often start with rules that prohibit certain types of conduct. Rules include legal prohibitions against corruption, and criminal and civil penalties directed at both the public and private sectors (Williams-Elegbe, 2012), but also include codes of conduct and ethics for public officials. According to article 8 of UNCAC, such codes are to be used for promotion of personal standards (integrity, honesty and responsibility) and professional responsibilities for correct, impartial, honourable and proper performance of public functions. Codes provide guidance on how public officials should conduct themselves in relation to these standards and how they may be held accountable for their actions and decisions. In addition to UNCAC, other initiatives of regional and international organizations also recognize and promote the implementation of codes of conduct. An example of this is the International Code of Conduct for Public Officials, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996.

Systems of rewards and incentives

At a basic level, all countries should establish a system that rewards appropriate behaviour and penalizes corrupt behaviour in the public sector. The system should include extrinsic motivations such as a decent wage and merit-based appointments and promotions. Research compiled by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID, 2017) suggests that an invariable link between lower wages for public officials and corruption does not exist in all countries, but that, in some cases, higher wages and merit-based promotions are associated with a lower probability of the acceptance of illegal payments. In terms of intrinsic motivations, a high staff morale is crucial for anti-corruption efforts to succeed, and there is a lower tolerance for corruption among persons who find their jobs satisfying (Kwon 2014). Penalties for corrupt behaviour are included in the anti-corruption laws of many countries, and research has shown that, in some cases, higher or harsher penalties for corrupt behaviours can lead to a decrease in public sector corruption (Fisman and Miguel, 2007; Hasty, 2005).


This refers to the ability of all firms to access government contract opportunities (OECD, 2016). Full accessibility is required to increase competition in public procurement and foster the participation of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in public procurement. Access is fostered by reducing the bureaucracy inherent in the tender process, cutting the cost of participation in public procurement and streamlining the tender process. Limiting bureaucracy is particularly important in public procurement. Access to public contracts by SMEs and other target companies can be facilitated by rules requiring a portion of government contracts to be awarded to SMEs, women, minorities and other target groups.

Human resources management

The rules and procedures for hiring, rotation, promotion, professionalization, and training of civil servants also play a role in the combating of corruption in the public sector. For example, staff rotation in jobs that are vulnerable to corruption is expected to assist in preventing corrupt relationships from forming and in disrupting established corrupt relationships. Rotation may also lead to reduced incentives to engage in corruption for private sector actors, as there might not be the future guarantee of the corrupt partner's continuation in a particular position. Merit-based recruiting is another example of a human resources management system designed to disrupt corruption. Article 7 of UNCAC stipulates that the human resources management system of the civil service must be based on the underlying principles of transparency, integrity and efficiency. This includes ensuring the prevalence of objective criteria for the recruitment, retention, promotion and retirement of public officials, as well as continuous learning opportunities and adequate and equitable remuneration and conditions of employment for staff in the civil service. As with all anti-corruption measures, rotation must be balanced against other concerns, such as building competency and commitment to public service.

Citizen and stakeholder participation

Public sector accountability requires that a wide range of stakeholders - such as anti-corruption offices, private sector organizations, end-users, civil society, academia, the media and the general public - participates in public sector processes and in the procurement process in particular (OECD, 2016). Participation of citizens is especially important in this regard, including in the procurement context (Heroles, 2012; Landell-Mills, 2013). In some countries, recognition of the importance of citizen participation in public procurement processes is reflected in the law. For example, laws in Mongolia and Mexico call for citizen participation in public procurement processes (Parafina, 2015). This has shown to be effective in Mexico in terms of reducing the cost of public contracts (De Simone and Shah, 2012). Citizen participation in anti-corruption efforts is discussed in detail in Module 10 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

Open government and e-government

Article 10 of UNCAC requires States to adopt procedures for public reporting and access to public sector information. In this regard, many countries have established e-government services that allow the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in connection with government functions and procedures, with the purpose of increasing efficiency, transparency and citizen participation (United Nations, 2016).ICT can improve the delivery of public services, build trust between citizens and government, and contribute to public sector reform initiatives (OECD, 2005a). ICT is actively used to promote integrity particularly in public procurement and management of public finances as it can strengthen transparency, facilitate access to public tenders and simplify administrative procedures (United Nations, 2016). Moreover, ICT could help to:

reduce direct interaction between procurement officials and companies ... and allow for easier detection of irregularities and corruption, such as bid rigging schemes. The digitalisation of procurement processes strengthens internal anti-corruption controls and detection of integrity breaches, and it provides audit services trails that may facilitate investigation activities (OECD, 2016).

A good example of promoting access to information is the Open Data Charter, which as of September 2019 has been adopted by 71 national and local governments across the world, although there are disproportionately few signatories from non-Western countries (see current list of nations), and endorsed by 49 organizations from civil society and private sectors. Government information shared as part of the Open Data Charter should comply with six principles: the data should be

  • open by default
  • timely
  • comprehensible
  • accessible and useable
  • comparable; and
  • interoperable (following international data standards).

The data should be designed to foster improved governance and citizen engagement, and it should promote inclusive development and innovation (see more about the Open Data Charter principles). Another example of a country that has adopted the Open Data Charter is Ukraine where an online and open data system called ProZorro was launched in 2015 to ensure that documents and information related to public procurement would be easily accessible to civil society. ProZorro has had a measurable impact on saving the government millions of euros and increasing bidding on contracts by 50 per cent ( Open Data Charter, 2018, p. 4). In terms of public procurement, the European Union has adopted Directive 2014/24/EU, which requires publishing all public tenders above a certain contract value in the Supplement to the Official Journal of the European Union (see chapter 3, section II: Publication and Transparency and summary). Such legal requirements and efforts to provide open information platforms are critical to preventing opportunities for corruption.

To assist in providing governments with support and technical knowledge on how to implement open data initiatives, the Open Data for Development Programme (OD4D) offers numerous resources and training programmes. The OD4D Anti-Corruption Open Up Guide , for example, showcases the use of open data to promote and enforce anti-corruption efforts. An example of how OD4D is used by individual countries is the public information database of Georgia The website provides a vast range of information from all public institutions in Georgia, including planned expenditures, bonuses and salaries of civil servants, increasing transparency in public activities and allowing citizens and non-governmental institutions (NGOs) to better understand and study the public spending by the Georgian authorities.

Managing conflicts of interest

Conflicts of interest could lead to corruption, therefore such conflicts need to be disclosed and addressed in a manner that will prevent a descent into corruption. In general, conflicts of interest are addressed through financial and asset disclosure requirements, codes of conduct and other regulations, such as prohibiting public officials to work in the private sector for a certain period of time after they leave the public service. The purpose of these measures is to require public officials to recuse themselves from decisions where an actual or potential conflict may arise (Mattarella, 2014).

Most of the modern asset and interest disclosure systems were developed following the adoption of UNCAC, in response to the requirements of article 8 of the Convention to avoid potential conflicts of interest in the future, facilitate the management of such conflicts and ensure that corrupt public officials will not be able to conceal the proceeds of any illegal activity (United Nations, 2018). The open data measures, which were discussed in the section above, can also be used to facilitate the proceeding of asset declarations for public officials. Additionally, making information easily available on topics such as asset declarations and the tender process in public procurement encourages journalists and researchers to scrutinize data and sectors of society that are often vulnerable to corruption. For more information on how asset declarations can be used as an anti-corruption tool see this World Bank commissioned study by Kotlyar and Pop (2016).

Compliance-friendly environment

In relation to ensuring compliance with anti-corruption rules and norms in the public sector, nudges and training programmes are common ways of creating an environment for compliance. Nudge theory was popularized by Thaler and Sunstein (2008), who defined it as:

any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy to implement and cost effective. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

Nudge theory presumes that, when faced with a choice, people are more likely to go for a default option, and so presenting simple alternatives at the moment of decision-making can alter behaviour without heavy-handed enforcement.

In the corruption context, the concept of ambient accountability takes nudge theory a little further and uses "physical space and the built environment to empower people, help them understand/assert their rights and stop corruption right where it matters - ideas, inspiration, evidence from stickers, murals and billboards, to feedback interfaces, urban screens and architectural interventions" (Zinnbauer, 2012). Anti-corruption and ethics training are common in the public sector and in specialized areas like public procurement - the idea being to sensitize officials to the rules, to areas of risk and to measures to take when faced with ethical dilemmas (OECD, 2007a). Integrity and ethics management is further discussed in Module 11, Module 13 and Module 14 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics.

Monitoring and oversight

Monitoring can take the form of audits, transparency measures that provide information needed to hold the public sector to account and civil society monitoring. Research by Di Tella and Schargrodsky (2003) demonstrates that audits on public hospitals in Argentina reduced the cost of medical supplies by 15 per cent, and Bobonis, Fuertes and Schwabe (2016) show that audits reduced municipal corruption by 67 per cent in Puerto Rico. The kind and nature of oversight over, for instance, the procurement process depends on a risk assessment of the procurement environment. Control measures can thus serve as risk management tools as long as they are "coherent and include effective and clear procedures for responding to credible suspicions of violations of laws and regulations, and facilitate reporting to the competent authorities without fear of reprisals" (OECD, 2016).

Accountability and scrutiny (the four-eyes principle)

The four-eyes principle refers to a requirement that some public sector activities or decisions must be approved by at least two people. The four-eyes principle is a tool for monitoring and increased accountability and operates on the basis that it is harder to corrupt two people than one person (Bodenschatz and Irlenbusch, 2019), although this might not be the case in systemically corrupt societies (Williams-Elegbe, 2018).

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