This module is a resource for lecturers  


Manifestations and consequences of public sector corruption


Forms and manifestations of public sector corruption

All before-mentioned forms of corruption occur in the public sector, including bribery, embezzlement, illicit enrichment, trading in influence, and abuse of functions (which can involve favouritism and nepotism). As noted in Module 1, the precise legal articulation of corruption offences is complex. For example, article 15 of UNCAC defines bribery in the public sector as "[t]he promise, offering or giving, to a public official, directly or indirectly, of an undue advantage, for the official himself or herself or another person or entity, in order that the official act or refrain from acting in the exercise of his or her official duties". While this definition can be difficult to digest, the essence of the crime - money or anything else of value exchanged for benefits from political or economic actors - is not difficult to grasp. Nor is it difficult to understand the effect of the crime - circumventing lawful procedures by auctioning off political or economic power to the highest bidder.

The same goes for embezzlement and misappropriation of property, defined in UNCAC Article 17. Beyond the complex legal formulation of the definition, the bottom line is that someone entrusted with something valuable (such as property, funds or investments) has taken it for him- or herself or routed it to some third party at the expense of others. It is, essentially, a combination of betrayal and theft. UNCAC article 19 defines the offence of abuse of functions. This offence could apply to situations such as patronage (the use of State resources to reward individuals for their electoral support); nepotism (preferential treatment of relatives); cronyism (awarding jobs and other advantages to friends or trusted colleagues); and sextortion (the demand for sexual favours as a form of payment) - all of which undermine independent or democratically representative decision-making, and fair and competitive processes in the formation or staffing of governments. Like the crimes of bribery and embezzlement, these forms of corruption are highly destructive of transparency, accountability and the rule of law. That is not only their effect; it is also their object and purpose. For a further discussion of the crimes defined by UNCAC and the corollary obligations of States that are party to the Convention, see Module 12 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

Corruption manifests differently in different areas of the public sector. For example, corruption schemes in the areas of security and defence may include patronage and bribes to secure the purchase of military equipment from a particular company, while in the health sector it may refer to kickbacks that patients have to pay to their doctors or abuse of healthcare funds by public officials and doctors. In the area of education, corruption occurs when lecturers demand favours from their students to pass an exam or to receive a diploma (for more information about corruption in education see Module 9 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption). Common corruption schemes in the police and the judiciary include the manipulation of cases and evidence by the police, court judgments given to satisfy a favoured party, and corruption in judicial procurement. All these schemes lead to people's frustration, disengagement, polarization and even conflict. When these corruption offences occur in the areas of the public sector that are responsible for providing justice and enforcing the law, such as the judiciary and the police, they are not only offences in their own right, they also obstruct the course of justice and undermine the rule of law and human rights in the most direct and fundamental way.


Consequences of public sector corruption

The detrimental impacts of corruption are discussed in depth in Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption. For present purposes, we should recognize that public sector corruption adds substantially to the costs of public goods and services, leads to the misallocation of public resources, weakens policymaking and implementation, and destroys public confidence in the government (IMF, 2016; Graycar, 2015). Corruption in the police or judiciary can be especially detrimental to the rule of law and human rights in a country. Corruption in the defence sector and the health system can have equally devastating impacts. Corruption in the military, for example, can impede the government's ability to protect the population from security threats; whereas, corruption in hospitals can result in health crises and unnecessary deaths.

Corruption in public works and infrastructure has the obvious potential for harm to the public, and ranges from non-existent, inappropriately located and poorly functioning public services, to services that physically injure or kill members of the public. Corruption in infrastructure often determines what is built where, rather than the amount spent on building or connecting the infrastructure (Kenny, 2006, p. 18). Locatelli and others (2017) show how corruption in Italian high-speed railways worsens both cost and time performance. The authors also use this case study to examine the impact of corruption on megaprojects (high value, complex projects with long-lasting impact on the economy, environment and society). Some procurement corruption cases lead to death and injury. The cases of the Padma Bridge scandal in Bangladesh, the 2018 earthquake in Mexico City and the South Korean ferry disaster are all examples where, because of corruption, important infrastructure projects were awarded to companies which used cheap and low-quality materials, neglected safety procedures and enjoyed impunity and lack of government control over their actions. Subsequently, this led to unsafe infrastructure which resulted in high death tolls and instances of injury. There have also been widely publicized incidents of public buildings collapsing in South Africa and India. In addition to tragic consequences for individuals, private sector participation in procurement corruption has led in some cases to the demise of certain firms, or their exclusion from public contracts (known as debarment), and other criminal and civil penalties (Williams-Elegbe 2012).

The impact of corruption in the public sector is determined by its frequency and reach. That is, public sector corruption may be episodic (a single act of corruption) or systemic (a pervasive pattern of corrupt activities and practices over time), and its effects can range from isolated to far-ranging in nature. For example, a public servant stealing office stationery to sell outside of work may have limited adverse effects, particularly if it is an isolated incident. In contrast, a pervasive pattern of corruption such as that seen in cases of state capture (defined in Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption) has far-reaching and potentially devastating political and economic effects. However, there are also serious moral implications to any act of corruption. Furthermore, even episodic corruption cases can eventually lead to an unethical organizational culture, which can escalate to systemic corruption.

Systemic corruption in the public sector erodes public trust in government institutions, damages policy integrity, and distorts public sector outcomes. It also has a deep-seated negative impact on the public sector in that it leads to a self-perpetuating organizational culture of corruption. The vested interests of the different actors in the system make systemic corruption very difficult to fight. It thus becomes necessary to base anti-corruption efforts, as much as possible, on both intrinsic elements in the public sector and on external controls (including laws and regulations), as well as on broad public participation.

Next: Causes of public sector corruption
Back to top