Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Institutional Vice

"Do you know corruption?"
Corruption is not new to institutions – national, regional or international – and as the daily exposé in the media reveal, its arms and legs are stretched over the public, private and non-profit/government (NGO) sectors. In recent times, there has been a progressive increase of complaints and also of the redress mechanisms to deal with the complaints. There is a lot more public noise as well as organized actions by the NGOs. On the whole, it seems that there has been an increase in the number of the NGOs which are engaged in anti-corruption activism. I am not quite sure that there is a proportionate increase in the number of activists who challenge corruption in non-institutionalized manner, and mobilize and organize their communities to oppose corruption. We also have a large number of reports and publications from the NGOs which give their success stories towards ending corruption. However, most such stories centre around the number of anti-corruption policy frameworks and laws enacted and the number of institutions or mechanisms set up to take action against corruption. These stories may send a positive message and give hope that those engaging in corruption will be identified, prosecuted and held accountable; but there isn’t much to suggest that there is a reduction in the prevalence of corruption. So despite the noise, it is hard to claim that corruption is less prevalent now than it was, say, a decade back.

"Hmmm ... let's say that it is not an alien"
 This noise, however, has contributed to enhanced sophistication in corruption. In other words, corruption has become subtle and so increasingly becoming more difficult to nail down. This growing subtlety also makes it hard to see corruption as corruption and opens debates about what constitutes corruption.

The institutions created to ensure the implementation of the universal norms and laws or to be guided by the normative international instruments to safeguard rights, protect the vulnerable and hold the duty-bearers accountable are one of those who often indulge in what I am referring as subtle forms of corruption. Take for example hiring of personnel, there are several forms of ‘influentionary’ strategies to keep nepotism alive and healthy in such institutions, like, lobbying with colleagues to hire a consultant pre-chosen so the colleagues involved in the procurement process are influenced; deliberately picking up weaker curriculum vitae compared to the candidate who is pre-chosen; cooking up papers to show that the due process is being undertaken; creating and tailoring the job to pre-chosen person or getting the pre-chosen contractor to write the terms of reference; sidelining those who raise objections so that they don’t even get to know what’s going on till the process is over and the pre-chosen person in position and if they become too troublesome just allow their contract to lapse silently; getting a friendly panel in an interview that would oblige; hiring persons from politically influential families or those from the public institutions for assignments or jobs that is supposed to be ensuring public accountability and thereby giving the pro-establishment elements undue input into the running of the institution, and so on. One of the side effects of this practice is poor quality human resources, which increases the amount of work to be done by those few who do not have patrons in the institution.

"Let's get our own kind to do it."
Then there are some other ways of influencing a decision regarding a project/programme which cannot be taken directly unless the institutional check-points clear or approve the process. In such instances, those who have a say in or have a way to influence the institutional check-points, use the check-points to slow-down or halt the clearance or approval and simultaneously accuse the manager of non-delivery till the manager agrees to do it the way the higher-ups or those with vested interest want it done. In a bureaucratic set up with several layers between the manager or the unit that wants the work to start and the institutional check-point, which can give the clearance, this is all the more easily done because the case cannot be presented directly for approval rather has to be presented by one of the layers. If the layer responsible for presenting a case has a vested interest, which can be served by either delaying or killing the project/programme, the presentation before the institutional check-point is such that the project/programme will never get clearance/approval.

"We can make monkey business possible."
With another twist, this strategy is used to get rid of the ‘non-compliant’ or troublesome managers who cannot see why the contract must be awarded to ‘so and so’ and/or fail to hire the pre-chosen. The harassment through the process and delays usually see the troublesome manager bidding farewell soon because this type of allegation of corruption is near impossible to corroborate, after all, each layer has a right to demand information and review the process till it is satisfied. If this happens repeatedly, the manager has to go on abandoning projects/programmes requiring clearance/approvals and leave not because the work doesn't have merit, but because the manager cannot afford to be left without work to deliver and eventually be accused of poor performance.

Then there are strategies which can be called ‘create an emergency situation and get away’. This strategy creates a scenario of poor capacity and lack of understanding of the institutional rules and regulations in which planning and reporting and in general compliance is not possible. In the public or multilateral institutions, usually, there is a lot of sympathy for poor capacity/understanding. In these institutions, poor performance is never an individual’s performance issue because no amount of capacity building or the opportunities to learn at work are ever regarded as adequate to improve capacity. In an environment of the so-called poor capacity and understanding, every work/project/programme comes up suddenly and requires rushed approval without proper review. If the rushed approval is denied, it would lead to non-delivery, and of course, annoy the stakeholders. The higher ups are usually complicit in operationalization of this strategy; often by applying pressure to managers to approve in a fast-track mode. Even when they are not, like any good management concerned about the public relations, they would not have either non-delivery because they need to show utilization of the resources or annoyed stakeholders because they need the goodwill of the stakeholders either for the institution or themselves.

"Nah, let's just swim as long as we can."
Add one more twist to this strategy called ‘create an emergency situation and get away’. This twist involves deliberate persistent under/ill-staffing or keeping only the non-performers in the job and persistent complaints about under-staffing, which creates an environment in which temporary but expensive contracts must be given out to manage assignments in an emergency mode. In such situations, higher ups usually respond with what can be thought as a positive and supportive gesture to waive off the due process of hiring, but how supportive are such gestures and to whom are matters to be debated. One of the justifications for the prevalence of such states of affair is on grounds of the long time required for getting the positions approved or the lack of the predicable fund. Judging from the amount of time spent in numerous procurements and the total sum of money that is paid out in consultancies, the logic of either time or fiscal prudence does not stand much ground. A sound audit or cost benefit analysis can easily show that reducing staffing below a particular level actually costs the institution more due to the number of consultants that need to be hired and the overtime pay that need to be paid to inefficient staff who cannot deliver in the time that it should take to deliver a particular job.

Subtle or not, corruption affects utilization of the public funds by keeping the inefficient and scaring off the serious workers, causing marginalization of the politically un-influential from jobs in such institutions, curtailing benefits that could have been realized if resources were to be used appropriately and efficiently, increasing the transaction costs, slippage of resources through payments to unnecessary or inflated consultancies, undermining mission and vision of the institution and weakening management of the institution.

 There is no one society, community, race or country that is more corrupt than the other. I see this as a universal practice that thrives in an environment of weak governance, tolerance for non-performance and culture of patronage.

"You said it, and so well!"
There is no ready-made method to check corruption. Unless violations are identified actively, violators penalized publically, and the layers which hardly have any value addition to make to a process, removed, nothing much will come out of the increasing number of mechanisms to check corruption. Regular and frequent public audits and institutional transparency can go a long way in enforcing accountability. The extent to which structural and practice changes in the institutions can be made to minimize the room for corruption depends on the mobilization of wider political powers, civil society and individual activists at the national and international levels. Corruption is not an evil that will ever disappear for good because it sits in the human mind so it is essential that the strategies to check it are also dynamic, and context and time specific.

Artwork Courtesy: GTalk

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