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date: 20 April 2024

Controlling Bureaucratic Corruptionfree

Controlling Bureaucratic Corruptionfree

  • Ting GongTing GongDepartment of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong
  •  and Sunny L. YangSunny L. YangDepartment of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong


Corruption is a complex social phenomenon. It refers to the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, but it may still mean different things to different people. The definition of corruption applicable in one place may not be suitable in another setting, and the conception of corruption is highly contextualized. Adding to the difficulty of defining corruption is the lack of accurate measurements for the degree of corruption. Objective and subjective measures have been developed by scholars and practitioners, but their reliability and validity have often been challenged. The measurements developed so far are proxies for the level of corruption rather than accurate diagnostic tools. Despite the difficulties of conceptualizing and measuring corruption, its effects on public administration and social development are clearly evident. Corruption causes losses to state coffers, undermines the rule of law and regulatory regimes, distorts the provision of public services, ruins public trust in government, and weakens the overall quality of governance. Corruption may sometimes grease administrative wheels, but it usually benefits only a few individuals or groups and in the long run is detrimental to the society as a whole. When unchecked or under-checked, corruption destabilizes the economy, destroys political legitimacy, and triggers social unrest. This explains why controlling corruption has been a high priority on the government’s agenda in most countries and has been the focus of the activities of many civil society organizations. Various anti-corruption strategies are adopted; there are, for example, compliance-based, value-based, top-down, bottom-up, economic, institutional, and cultural approaches to controlling corruption. The configuration of anti-corruption agencies may also differ from country to country, displaying distinctive features. Evidently, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to corruption control and prevention. What works or not depends on a country’s specific circumstances. However, the experiences of Hong Kong and Singapore in fighting corruption and building clean societies reveal a few important success factors.


  • Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy

Corruption as an Elusive Concept

Corruption is a long-existing phenomenon in human societies, affecting people in all walks of life. However, there has been no consensus on what corruption is. The concept is inherently contested because it may mean different things to different people, reflecting diverse or even clashing viewpoints. In addition, what is considered corruption in one place is not necessarily the same in another; and the meaning of corruption may also differ across different periods of time in the same society. Moreover, in daily life, the word “corruption” has been used interchangeably to refer to a variety of transgressions, including bribery, fraud, embezzlement, nepotism, extortion, patronage, and collusion. All this makes defining corruption problematic.

The many different definitions of corruption nevertheless share some common attributes. The traditional definitions tend to agree that (a) the main actors in corruption are public officials, (b) whose purpose is to seek personal gain, and (c) it is often done at the expense of public interests. Each of these elements may be emphasized by a particular definition or a group of definitions. Thus, Heidenheimer (2002) summarized three major foci in the scholarly efforts of defining corruption: the public office–centered definitions or those that relate corruption to the abuse of public office; the market-centered ones that emphasize benefit-maximizing motivations of the corrupt; the public interest–centered definitions that consider corruption as a betrayal of public interest; and the consequence-centered ones that highlight the detrimental social effects of corruption.

First, the role of public office is taken as essential in defining corruption. The best known example is Nye’s (1967, p. 417) conception that corruption is the “behaviour which deviates from the formal duties of a public role because of private-regarding (close family, personal, private clique) pecuniary or status gains; or violates rules against the exercise of certain types of private-regarding influence.” Its short form is the widely used World Bank’s definition of corruption as the “misuse of public office for private gain” (World Bank, 1997, p. 8). Equally noticeable in Nye’s definition and many others’ is an emphasis on the motivation of the corrupt to seek personal gains. Corruption is “the intentional misperformance or neglect of a recognized duty, or the unwarranted exercise of power, with the motives of gaining some advantage more or less directly personal” (Brooks, cited in Rose & Heywood, 2013, p. 151). While engaging in corruption, government officials use public office to maximize private gains, which may be tangible or intangible, pecuniary or non-pecuniary, and short or long term. Corruption is thus, by nature, harmful to the public interest. Still other definitions point to the bad consequences of corruption. Friedrich (2002, p. 15) suggests, for example, that in defining corruption “whether this was the motivation or not, it is the fact that private gain was secured at public expense that matters,” and corruption allows a power holder to “take actions which favor whoever provides rewards and thereby damage the group or organization to which the functionary belongs, more specifically the government.”

As the boundaries between public and private sectors continue to shift and become blurred from time to time, traditional definitions of corruption have met various challenges. Questions have been raised, for example, about whether the conception of corruption should only focus on public office holders or whether it should cover illicit activities in other sectors as well. Kurer (2015, pp. 31–32) argues that both public and private sectors “view certain practices, like bribery or embezzlement, similarly; the misuse of entrusted power of a public and private employee does indeed closely resemble each other.” Thus, a narrow definition focusing merely on public-sector corruption “may distort the incidence of corruption.”

Critics also find fault with definitions that treat private gain as a necessary condition of corruption. Tanzi (1998) holds that the payoff with the abuse of public power has a wider range of results than personal rewards, which may include benefits to other related individuals or groups instead of oneself, such as family members, friends, and party organizations. This argument is echoed by Philp (2006, p. 46), who believes that the complex composition of private gains includes “campaign contributions, traded political support, electoral or ‘log-rolling’ deals.” Even if there is no gain, an action may still be considered corrupt, such as an insider deal that goes awry (Kurer, 2015, p. 33).

There has been a growing consensus that the conception of corruption is contextualized. What is regarded as corruption in a social context may not be taken as corruption in another. Heidenheimer (2002) offered a white–gray–black imagery to illustrate this. Depending on regime types or community norms, he argued, corrupt behavior may be tolerated as “white” corruption, treated with ambiguity as “grey” corruption, or punished severely as “black” corruption. A similar view is expressed by Rose-Ackerman (1978, p. 9), who observes that “one does not condemn a Jew for bribing his way out of a concentration camp.” These comments point to the complexity of defining corruption, but by no means suggest that corruption is relativistic. Corruption is a violation of legal, political, or social standards, even though standards may vary from society to society.

On the whole, definitions of corruption have evolved to cover more actors, to deal with increasingly diverse forms of corrupt behavior, and to apply more broadly to institutions and individuals beyond the government. Thus, corruption is not merely considered as exclusive behavior confined to the public sector but extends to actors in the private sector. Moreover, the purpose of corruption is no longer associated with personal gain only; its consequences may go far beyond undermining public interests. Corruption manifests itself in the form of bribery, embezzlement, corporate fraud, and insider trading between firms in the private sector. Much like corruption in the public sector, these corrupt practices deviate from prevailing legal standards and social norms. Transparency International (“How Do You Define Corruption?,” n.d.) thus defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,” to broaden its coverage. Corruption may also be defined practically to refer to corruption at the level of individuals. For example, Tanzi (1998, p. 563) considers corruption as “the intentional noncompliance with arm’s length relationship aimed at deriving some advantage from this behaviour for oneself or related individuals.” In China, the practice of utilizing guanxi (“personal connections”) for personal needs has been regarded as a corrupt practice.

Is Corruption Measurable?

Just as the concept of corruption is elusive, measuring corruption levels is also challenging. When terms such as “prevalent,” “rampant,” or “endemic” are used, questions are raised about their validity and accuracy. It is not clear, for example, whether a higher level of corruption refers to more corruption cases, higher value of stakes, or more distortionary impact (Rose-Ackerman, 1999). On the other hand, gauging the degree of corruption is critically important for reaching a good understanding of corruption, evaluating the performance of anti-corruption agencies, assessing the success or failure of efforts at controlling corruption, and developing effective policies against corruption.

There are few direct measures for corruption because of its complex and clandestine nature. Sometimes anecdotes are treated as facts. Numbers of openly reported corruption cases are often cited as indicators of the prevalence of corruption. Corruption data may also be drawn from nationwide criminal statistics. These methods are useful, but they may succumb to selection biases of the media or official reporting agencies (McCarthy, McPhail, & Smith, 1996). Moreover, it is likely that the data will depend on the capacity and effectiveness of a country’s anti-corruption efforts, and high levels simply reflect the success in combating corruption rather than the actual level of corruption (Lambsdorff, 2006).

In addition to the efforts to obtain direct data, indirect measurements have been used. Kaufmann, Kraay, and Mastruzzi (2007) comment on some indirect ways, such as collecting the informed views of relevant stakeholders, tracking countries’ institutional features, and conducting thorough audits of specific projects to gather corruption data. They believe that these methods help dispute the myth that corruption is not measurable. Indicators of government performance, including records of bureaucratic delays, methods of handling revenues, and price patterns in procurement, may also be used to gauge the success or failure of efforts to control corruption; these benchmarks indicate points of vulnerability, allow reformers to compare current performance with those of the past and those of other jurisdictions, and can provide citizens with evidence of enhanced services (Johnston, 2018).

Noticeably, subjective indicators have assumed an increasingly important place in measuring corruption. The public perception of corruption is taken as “a good proxy for experiences,” as it is usually developed on the basis of what people have experienced in a society and reflects, to a large extent, the reality (Razafindrakoto & Roubaud, 2010, p. 1057). Data on perceptions of corruption are obtained from surveys and interviews. The best-known example is the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) (1995–2018), an annual index that has been published by Transparency International since 1995 and is designed to rank countries by perceived levels of corruption determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys. The Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) (2019) published by the World Bank also includes data on perceptions of corruption as one of its six dimensions of governance.

The approach to measuring corruption by subjective data faces no less criticism than the one to seeking objective data. The major concern is the discrepancy between the level of perceived corruption and the reality. Lambsdorff (2006, p. 86) expresses the concern that “a high degree of observed corruption may reflect a high standard of ethics rather than a high degree of real misbehaviour.” A freer and more attentive media environment can also result in perceptions of more corruption. Empirical studies have also revealed the low correlation between perceived and actual corruption (see, e.g., Razafindrakoto & Roubaud, 2010).

The criticisms serve as a reminder that perceptions of corruption should never be confused with factual levels of corruption, although they may be related to some extent. That said, public perceptions of corruption are still a good indicator of the risk of corruption facing a society. If the perceived level of corruption is high, it may signify something wrong with the government and influence citizens’ propensities to fight corruption. Yet it may also result in very little public reaction. People may take corruption to be the norm and regard perceived high levels of corruption as unremarkable. Whether the public accepts or rejects corruption has a decisive impact on the extent to which a community is susceptible to it. Anti-corruption policies may deter corrupt activities, but their ultimate effectiveness depends on whether corruption is socially tolerated or not.

The fact that measuring corruption is difficult and highly contested does not mean that it cannot be measured. One conclusion that may be drawn from the controversies is that no measurement is perfect—“close, but no cigar,” as Heywood and Rose (2014) put it. Because corruption is a multifaceted social phenomenon, an approach using multidimensional measurements should be adopted to understand its levels.

Consequences of Corruption

Corruption leads to various economic, political, and social problems. It causes great losses in public assets, destabilizes economies, ruins social trust, and damages political legitimacy. The adverse effects of corruption on public administration include, but are not limited to, a lower quality of governance, poor public service provision, murky regulatory regimes, and shoddy policy implementation. At the societal level, corruption may distort the allocation of resources, aggravate income inequality, cause social grievances, and contribute to social unrest.

Although the negative impact of corruption is too obvious to dispute, a heated debate centers on whether corruption has positive functions, if any. Questions have been raised concerning whether corruption may “grease the wheels” of public administration or may be the “sand in the wheels” and whether it enhances efficiency under certain conditions or simply reduces it (see, e.g., Méon & Sekkat, 2005).

The Grease-the-Wheels Arguments

This group of studies holds that corruption may work as a lubricant that greases the wheels of otherwise inefficient bureaucracies by overcoming red tape and administrative negligence (Leys, 1965). Corruption exists not only because it is difficult to control or people perceive it as normal and accept it, but also because it often serves, or is believed to serve, as a means of solving real problems (Marquette & Peiffer, 2018). In the Cambodian garment industry, bribery was found to help reduce bureaucratic delays and consequently improve productivity (Kasuga, 2013). Corruption may also bring efficiency to procurement and bidding systems by allocating projects to the most efficient firms because they are able to afford higher bribes (Beck & Maher, 1986). Based on a sample of 73 developed and less developed countries in the period of the 1990s, Egger and Winner (2005) report a statistically positive relationship between corruption and foreign direct investment (FDI), and consider corruption as a stimulus for FDI. Vial and Hanoteau (2010) use the panel data of the Indonesian manufacturing industry between 1975 and 1995 to show that bribery had a positive and statistically significant effect on individual plant growth.

Other studies suggest that the functions and effects of corruption are different under different conditions. Corruption reduces growth when economic freedom is high, but it may facilitate growth when economic freedom is low, by breaking down institutional barriers to market competition (Carden & Verdon, 2010). The effect of corruption may vary with the types of patron–client network as the networks determine what types of rights are exchanged through corruption and under what terms the exchanges take place (Khan, 1998). Corruption is an ingredient in economic growth in both a capitalist economy and in a totalitarian setting, although it functions in different ways: in a competitive capitalist society, corruption acts as an intermediate agent to reduce transaction costs, whereas in the totalitarian environment, it boosts the underground economy and breaks down the social order (Braguinsky, 1996).

The Sand-in-the-Wheels Arguments

Instead of seeing corruption as a means of greasing the wheels, many studies consider it as sand in the gears of public administration and as an impediment to social and economic development. Corruption is detrimental to public administration because corrupt officials may seek to enrich themselves by delaying the allocation of goods and services (Myrdal, 2002), endogenously exploiting regulatory regimes (Shleifer & Vishny, 1993), and determining who gets benefits and who bears the costs of government policies (Rose-Ackerman, 1999). Corruption increases transaction costs much more than it promotes efficiency (Jain, 2001). When corruption takes place, “one distortion adds up to the others instead of compensating them” (Méon & Sekkat, 2005, p. 73).

Corruption harms economic growth. When unchecked, it distorts business development, resource allocation, financial transaction, public spending, and domestic and foreign investment (Kaufmann & Wei, 1999). The negative effects of corruption on macro-level economic development and on firms at the micro level are demonstrated by empirical studies. Corruption is referred to as “an illegal tax” on the economy by Vinod (1999, p. 595), who estimates that “in developing countries a dollar’s worth of corruption causes a $1.67 worth of a burden on the economy . . . Since corruption must be kept secret to avoid punishment, since some corruption is akin to a tax on capital income, it is more distortionary than taxes.” Heywood and Rose (2014, p. 507) put it in a more straightforward way: “The financial cost of corruption has recently been estimated at more than 5 percent of global GDP.”

At the firm level, the extensive discretionary power of public officials in granting business permits and licenses gives them ample opportunity to request bribes or to accept offers (Tanzi, 1998). In a worldwide survey of 3,600 firms in 69 countries conducted by the World Bank, many entrepreneurs reported that corruption distorted their business environment and undermined firm performance (World Bank Survey, 1997, p. 241). For some firms, the burden of corruption could go far beyond that of taxation. As Kaufmann and Wei (1999, p. 2) point out, because of their power discretion with a given regulation, corrupt officials may “customize” the amount of harassment on firms according to their “ability to pay” in order to maximize bribes. Fisman and Svensson (2007) find a robust negative relationship between bribery rates and the short-run growth rate: a 1% increase in the bribery rate is correlated with a 3% decrease in the growth rate, which is about three times that of taxation. Relationships between corruption, innovation, and entrepreneurship have also attracted attention. Longitudinal data from 64 nations confirm that reduction in corruption is associated with rising levels of innovation and entrepreneurship (Anokhin & Schulze, 2009).

In a nutshell, even if corruption may have some limited positive functions in the short term and at a particular stage of economic development, in the long run it has adverse effects on the rule of law, social equality, good governance, market competition, and innovative development. Controlling corruption not only helps enhance government integrity but is also in the best interests of enterprises and individual citizens.

Combating Corruption

Just as corruption is an age-old problem facing all human societies, attempts to control it are probably equally ancient (Riley, 1998). Governments around the world have launched battles against corruption in varying degrees, for different purposes, and by multifarious means. Anti-corruption initiatives and programs have mushroomed in the past decades, engaging international agencies, national and local governments, civil society organizations, and individual citizens. It may be difficult to distinguish among anti-corruption strategies with great clarity as there is inevitably overlap, and good strategies tend to supplement one another. However, some classification may be possible and is helpful for achieving a better understanding of how corruption may be contained.

International, National, Local, and Populist Strategies

Theobald (1990) and Riley (1998) suggest that anti-corruption strategies may be seen at four levels: international, national, local, and populist. According to this topology, at the international level, policy initiatives and collaborative efforts to fight corruption are taken up by inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and Transparency International. The World Bank, for example, recommended “six strategies” to fight corruption; Transparency International identified “five key ingredients” of corruption prevention, and the World Economic Forum suggested “five ways to beat global corruption” (see Heywood, 2018).

National-level strategies of corruption prevention include setting up powerful anti-corruption agencies, adopting inspection systems, prosecuting and convicting corrupt officials, and encouraging whistle-blowing against corruption. Decentralization and deregulation, public awareness, media exposure, and community oversight are, inter alia, local- or “citizen”-level strategies. Finally, there is a populist strategy focusing on purges of politicians and civil servants for alleged or actual corruption and on moralistic campaigns (Riley, 1998, pp. 132–133).

Economic, Cultural, and Institutional Strategies

The development of anti-corruption strategies is often associated with what is believed to cause corruption. On that basis, scholars identify three major approaches to corruption and controlling corruption. First is an economic approach that prioritizes the “principal–agent” relationship in corruption (Doig & Riley, 1998). Corruption results from the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, whereas individual calculation of benefits and costs is taken as a key to understanding why some agents betray their principals to pursue diverging interests while others do not (Andvig et al., 2001). According to this line of analysis, anti-corruption strategies should strive to reduce corrupt incentives, enhance monitoring mechanisms, strengthen sanctions, and curb bureaucratic discretion.

Corruption may also be viewed as a cultural issue or a problem of collective action. Corruption may develop to the extent that it becomes a way of life instead of a fact of life. Under this situation, few would be interested in fighting corruption and may instead seek benefit from it. “Insofar as corrupt behaviour is the expected behaviour, everyone should be expected to act corruptly, including both the group of actors to whom the principal–agent framework refers to as ‘agents’ and the group of actors referred to as ‘principals’” (Persson, Rothstein, & Teorell, 2013, pp. 456–457). Corruption originates in deep-seated social structures and is embedded in patron–client networks that prevail in developing countries (Uberti, 2016). The design of anti-corruption tactics therefore should take into consideration specific social and cultural circumstances.

Finally, the institutional approach attributes corruption to bad governance reflected in weak power constraints and institutional loopholes. Corruption takes place because of institutional failures and can only be eradicated by appropriate institutional reforms. Klitgaard’s (1988) formula of C = M + D – A (corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability) suggests that corruption prevention requires repairing corrupt systems to limit monopoly and discretion while enhancing accountability. The importance of institutional design as a necessary condition for controlling corruption is highlighted by Manion (2004) in a comparative analysis of mainland China and Hong Kong.

Compliance-Based and Value-Based Strategies

Anti-corruption regimes may be categorized as compliance-based and value-based strategies (Maesschalck, 2004; Paine, 1994). The former is also referred to as the “low road” and the latter as the “high road” (Rohr, 1978). The compliance-based approach relies on well-drafted laws and legal and disciplinary sanctions or their deterrent effects as the primary means to control and prevent corruption. Accordingly, regulations, rules, codes of conduct, and penalties should be used to guide and constrain the activities of government agencies and individual officials. People are expected to follow appropriate procedures to “do the thing right” rather than “do the right thing,” by virtue of their values and integrity (Gregory & Hicks, 1999, p. 5).

On the other hand, instead of emphasizing control, oversight, and enforcement, the value-based approach highlights the role of ethical values in corruption prevention and integrity management. Its fundamental premise is that adhering to public values such as honesty, integrity, transparency, accountability, and the rule of law leads to better governance, hence corruption prevention. “Individuals’ baser instincts can be kept at bay through elevating people’s capacity and willingness for moral suasion” (Gregory, 2017, p. 278). Corruption may be contained through rule compliance, but following rules does not necessarily raise integrity, and there is no guarantee that future incidences of corruption can be prevented. Corruption prevention results from instilling, institutionalizing, and internalizing appropriate moral values.

The distinction between compliance-based and value-based strategies serves analytical purposes. As Scott and Gong (2019) suggest, the two approaches may be considered as a continuum, with value-based approaches at one end and compliance-based approaches at the other, and anti-corruption strategies may lean toward one or the other. In reality, however, all successful strategies involve some combination of the two approaches. Moral education supported by public values is pursued at the same time when laws and regulations are carefully developed and strictly imposed on public servants. “The question is where the emphasis should rest and how an appropriate mix of value-based and compliance-based measures can be achieved as forms of corruption change” (Scott & Gong, 2019, p. 5).

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Strategies

Common wisdom prescribes macro-level institutional reforms that promote political competition, market liberalization, freedom of press, and the rule of law as strong checks against power abuse. However, the existence of these formal institutions and of a political will against corruption is not sufficient for controlling corruption. Public support is crucial for anti-corruption policies and agencies to work effectively. This is because fighting corruption, a social malady that penetrates every corner of society, requires socially embedded approaches (Gong & Xiao, 2017). But all too often, top-down efforts are built around anti-corruption agencies; they call for improved administrative processes, independent judiciaries, and media, but do not always gain strong support or deep trust from civil society. An anti-corruption strategy, especially if it is centrally initiated and implemented in a top-down fashion, must be understood and accepted by the public before it can engage various social forces in the battle against corruption (Johnston, 2018).

There is another reason why civil involvement in anti-corruption is imperative: controlling corruption sometimes has to be pursued in a bottom-up manner. As Johnston rightly points out, in highly corrupt states, macro-level democratic advantages such as competitive elections, independent judiciaries, accountability, and transparency are either weak or non-existent. Accordingly, instead of serving as a legal weapon against corruption, the law becomes a tool of control in the hands of the ruling elite, and anti-corruption reform becomes “a smokescreen for further abuses” (Johnston, 2005, p. xi). State capture by special interests prevents formal anti-corruption institutions and strategies from reining in corruption. Anti-corruption agencies may lose or never develop sufficient organizational capacities to tackle prevailing political, social, and economic conditions under which they operate (Doig, Watt, & Williams, 2007). In these situations, anti-corruption pressures can only come from below, with civil society taking the lead in fighting corruption.

Civil society organizations have played an important role in controlling corruption and become “a leitmotiv of anti-corruption discourses” (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2013, p. 7). Cross-national and longitudinal data show that in those countries where civil society is stronger, the level of corruption tends to be lower than in those where civil society is weaker, and that the strengthening of civil society over time contributes to a decline in corruption (Themudo, 2013). Specifically, the functions of civil society in fighting corruption may include, but are not limited to, channeling citizens’ demands to the government for designing appropriate anti-corruption strategies, enlisting public participation in fighting corruption, maintaining pressure for a strong political commitment against corruption, and ensuring that anti-corruption policies are rooted in public interest (OECD, 2013, p. 27). The rise of civil society may help prevent corruption from becoming the norm in a society. Civil society groups can contribute to the formation of a zero-tolerance social environment for corruption, where corrupt officials face moral sanctions and popular condemnation and where the public lends a helping hand to anti-corruption agencies by reporting suspected corruption cases (Gong & Xiao, 2017).

Top-down strategies and bottom-up approaches cannot fare well if they work independently of each other. The effectiveness and sustainability of controlling corruption relies on both “police patrols” by anti-corruption agencies and “fire alarms” by the public. Without committed political leadership and formal accountability mechanisms, grass-roots anti-corruption efforts may not be sustainable. If social support is lacking, on the other hand, the chance of success for any well-designed anti-corruption policies or strategies is slim. The successful experiences in controlling corruption around the world testify to the existence of a virtuous circle: “Empowerment encouraged institutions to function and citizens to use them well. Citizen participation in turn strengthened political institutions” (Rotberg, 2018, p. 7).

A review of the strategies tells us that there are no one-size-fits-all anti-corruption “toolkits” or remedies. The road toward success in controlling corruption differs significantly from one country to another and may even differ from one period to another within the same country. Anti-corruption strategies must be tailor-made to fit the specific circumstances where corruption occurs.

Anti-Corruption Agencies

Anti-corruption agencies (ACAs) are institutions specialized in corruption control and prevention. As estimated by Transparency International (“Fighting Corruption,” 2014), there are more than 150 ACAs around the world, with Asia being the “cradle” where the first anti-corruption commission was set up in Singapore in 1952, followed by Malaysia in 1967 and Hong Kong in 1974. The missions of ACAs vary from one agency to another, but they usually fall into the following areas: anti-corruption policy development, coordination, monitoring, and research on corruption; prevention of corruption; anti-corruption education and raising awareness; and investigation and prosecution of corruption-related crimes (OECD, 2013). Specifically, ACAs’ responsibilities may include prevention of corruption through such activities as simplifying bureaucratic procedures and monitoring conflicts of interest; public education by raising people’s awareness of what is corruption and why it must be contained; and coordination of the activities of different government agencies that have similar duties (Meagher, 2004, p. 1).

Different Models

ACAs may have different focal points in their approaches. Some place emphasis only on anti-corruption enforcement; others may focus on corruption prevention and building social foundation for integrity management; and still others function as all-around institutions taking up various responsibilities concerning corruption control and prevention. Heilbrunn (2004) provides a summary of three successful models of ACAs: the universal model represented by the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC); the investigative model,which can be seen in the case of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in Singapore (CPIB); and the parliamentary model, as shown by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales, Australia (NSW ICAC).

The universal model symbolizes all-around corruption prevention and control, which is best illustrated by the “three-pronged” approach of the ICAC in Hong Kong in its effort to prevent corruption: law enforcement, prevention, and education. The organizational structure of the ICAC, consisting of three departments, corresponds to the three missions. The Operations Department investigates alleged corruption offenses to prosecute the corrupt and to deter potential future offenders. The Corruption Prevention Department has statutory functions in the examination of the procedures of government departments and public agencies to reduce opportunities for corruption, and it is also responsible for offering corruption prevention advice to private organizations upon invitation. Public education is the statutory duty of the Community Relations Department, which through its various community activities raises citizens’ awareness about corruption and enlists public support for fighting corruption (ICAC, n.d.). The ICAC is independent and has strong powers derived from the anti-corruption laws and regulations, particularly the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance. Another enabling legislation, the Independent Commission Against Corruption Ordinance, gives the ICAC the independent status and the power to investigate corruption-related crimes, make arrests, to act effectively on reports received from the public concerning suspected corrupt activities. The “universal model” has nevertheless been criticized for requiring considerable resources and solid budgetary support from the government (Heilbrunn, 2004).

Singapore’s CPIB represents an “investigative model.” Unlike the ICAC in Hong Kong, the CPIB’s primary function is investigation and enforcement, and it is responsible for obtaining evidence for prosecutions, as empowered by the Prevention of Corruption Act. For that reason, the staff size of the CPIB is just over 100, much smaller than the ICAC in Hong Kong, which has about 1,300 employees. The CPIB also performs the tasks of corruption prevention by reviewing the work procedures of public agencies and by safeguarding corruption-free transactions in the private sector. Structurally, the CPIB is under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, though it runs its own day-to-day affairs independently. It does have outreach programs, but the Singapore government undertakes more public engagement responsibilities than the CPIB, and the narrow focus and weak accountability of the CPIB have been considered as shortcomings (Scott & Gong, 2019).

The NSW ICAC, established in 1988, is referred to as the “parliamentary model.” The NSW ICAC reports to Parliament, although since 1994 members of Parliament have also been included in its investigation targets. Its principal powers, as provided by the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act, include investigating corrupt conduct in the public sector, preventing corruption through advice and assistance, and educating the public about corruption and its effects. The jurisdiction of the NSW ICAC covers public-sector agencies, their employees, and others who perform public official functions. In addition to investigating and exposing corruption, the NSW ICAC also puts a strong emphasis on preventing corruption. It considers prevention more important than cure (Heilbrunn, 2004, p. 8). For this purpose, it provides expert advice, consultancy, and training on corruption-related issues; makes recommendations on legal and administrative changes to close corruption loopholes; and conducts research about corruption risks and prevention strategies. The parliamentary model also has its weaknesses. It maximizes accountability, concerns over human rights, and the importance of prevention, but it lacks the investigative powers and strong anti-corruption laws of the other models (Scott & Gong, 2019).

ACAs’ structural relationships with other government institutions vary across countries. Quah (2003) compares six Asian countries and identifies three different patterns. One is a “single-agency” pattern, where a single special anti-corruption agency is responsible for comprehensive implementation of anti-corruption laws, as seen in the cases of Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and South Korea. The second “multi-agency” pattern refers to the joint effort of several anti-corruption agencies in enforcing anti-corruption laws, which can be found in the Philippines and China. There is also a third anti-corruption legal framework, where no specific agency takes responsibility for implementing anti-corruption practices. Mongolia is an example of this pattern, where the task of corruption prevention is shared by the police, the General Prosecutor’s Office, and the courts. Quah believes that the single-agency pattern is more effective than others, although not all the countries that have set up a single anti-corruption agency are successful.

Successful Cases

The rapid growth of ACAs raises the question about their effectiveness and how their performance should be evaluated. There has been substantial discussion about success factors of ACAs in the existing literature. Although it is impossible and also unnecessary to develop a standard approach in assessing ACAs, successful cases do share some common features. Meagher (2005), for example, lists some criteria that may be used to evaluate ACAs’ effectiveness, including perceived corruption levels, the adequacy of the political will in combating corruption, and the public perception of the ACA’s performance. Johnston (1999) notes that the critical elements of success are found in ACAs’ independence, permanence, broad mandates, and efforts at prevention.

At the practical level, it has been difficult to learn how to build a well-functioning ACA because successful cases are rare. The CPIB in Singapore and the ICAC in Hong Kong are among the few known examples of successful ACAs. Historically, both of them experienced dark days, with widespread corruption in their societies. The establishment of an ACA and its continuous effort to control and prevent corruption brought integrity to public administration in both places. In Transparency International’s CPI, Singapore and Hong Kong have been consistently ranked among the top 20 cleanest places of more than 170 countries and regions around the world.

Many studies have probed into the success factors of the CPIB and the ICAC. According to Quah (2018), Singapore’s anti-corruption success has five “secrets”: a pragmatic leadership symbolized by the founding father and the first prime minster, Lee Kuan Yew, and his legacy; an effective public bureaucracy; an emphasis on corruption prevention to keep corruption at bay; reliance on the “best and brightest” citizens through investment in education and competitive compensation; and learning from other countries. Based on their study of Hong Kong’s experience with transformation from a highly corrupt society to one in which corruption rarely occurs, Scott and Gong (2019) identify a number of factors that have contributed to the ICAC’s success. Besides emphasizing the importance of strong political will in fighting corruption, they stress the ICAC’s independent status, well-trained staff with high integrity, effective anti-corruption laws, and corruption-proof procedures, the ability to deal with emerging corruption threats, sufficient resources, and strategic use of publicity to enlist public support. Last but not least, the role of civil society is critical to Hong Kong’s success in fighting corruption. Hong Kong society maintains zero tolerance for corruption. The ICAC has effectively encouraged citizens to make reports or offer information on suspected corruption cases by various means such as telephone, email, or personal visit. For an ACA, “the task is not only to catch the corrupt but also to maintain a syndrome of success factors. If any one of those factors is compromised, the performance of the ACA will be affected, often critically” (Scott & Gong, 2019, p. 10).

Through a comparative analysis of ACAs, including the CPIB in Singapore and the ICAC in Hong Kong, Quah (2008, p. 73) concludes that ACAs must meet six preconditions in order to be successful:

(1) They must be incorruptible themselves; (2) they must be independent of the police and from political control; (3) there must be comprehensive anti-corruption legislation; (4) they must be adequately staffed and funded; (5) they must enforce the anti-corruption laws impartially; and (6) their governments must be committed to curbing corruption in their countries.

The successful cases may enlighten other places, although what works in one location may not be readily applied in another. In some countries, it may not even be necessary to establish an ACA, considering the cost, which may be higher than some traditional ways of combating corruption. The lessons to learn from the successful ACAs are not only how they are organized and their ways of functioning but also their emphasis on the rule of law, corruption prevention, and civic engagement. Without sufficient legal, political, and social support, an ACA alone can hardly win the battle against corruption.


Research on corruption and anti-corruption reform has developed rapidly and has grown into an academic field with many interesting yet contested perspectives, concepts, and arguments. Progress has been made by scholars and practitioners in probing the ways to define the meaning of corruption, measuring levels of corruption, pinpointing its causes, identifying its major patterns and characteristics, and finding appropriate anti-corruption strategies. However, significant challenges still lie ahead of anti-corruption reformers. An important concern is why successful cases in controlling corruption have been so few, despite numerous efforts made by governments, various strategies taken by anti-corruption watchdogs, and the investment of significant resources. The stories of Hong Kong and Singapore have been told over and over again as examples of success, and many ACAs in the world have been modeled after the ICAC or CPIB. Yet simple replication has not led to much improvement. It remains a moot point whether good policy practices are transferable from one country to another.

Theoretically, successful policy transfer must meet two conditions. One is transferability, referring to the generalizability of specific policies into transferable knowledge and practice beyond their original locations, and the other is the applicability of the policy concerned, namely, the readiness of contextual factors in favor of intended effects of policy transfer in the target places (Williams et al., 2014). Although emulating effective anti-corruption strategies is appealing, especially because successful cases are rare, the applicability of good practices to different social settings is a different story. It is important to keep in mind that corruption is embedded in, and fostered by, the specific social and economic environment in a particular place. Accordingly, the policies, administrative arrangements, and institutional strategies that have been developed and fared well in one place may not suit in other settings. Moreover, corruption may alter modes and characteristics as social conditions change across time and space. The success of any anti-corruption strategy is thus contingent on whether it is a good match with the social context in which it is adopted and implemented.

In sum, success in fighting corruption depends on many important factors such as strong political will, durable institutional capacity, solid social support, and the availability of resources—to name just a few. To choose the right anti-corruption strategies, policymakers must know not only what works but also what works for whom, in what respect, and under what conditions. The search for effective strategies to control and prevent corruption will be a long-lasting endeavor as long as corruption continues to exist as a salient social problem and as a major obstacle to good governance.


The work described in this article was supported by grants from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (Projects No. City U 11402814 & 11605917) and City University of Hong Kong (Project No. 7005144).


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