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Meritocracy, a barrier against corruption

In absence of minimal barriers, political competition encourages clientelism and corruption. Those who win the elections need to compensate their most committed and generous followers, so when the elected have nothing of their own to share, they resort to giving away public positions and government contracts, independent from the merit of their donors or followers.

Therefore supporters which get “paid” with a public office position or a contract are then vulnerable to pressure from their political leader which granted them compensation in form of a job or contract. This pressure may then consist of deviating contract funds to the political leader or to benefit their clientele with acts or procedures contrary to the law.

On occasions, politicians, public employees and businessmen agree on changing a law for an act which was once illegal then ceases to be considered a corrupt practice. There are many examples of these kinds of practices.

This happens not only in Colombia but around the world. The history of electoral competition is full of cases of clientelism and corruption. In some countries, however, this is past history, as they now established professional bureaucracy and meritocracy which have resulted, in most cases, to be incorruptible.

Public positions by merit

How was it possible to establish public administration career systems where public positions are only granted by competition and merit and is the only criteria to determine promotions? In the UK, the disaster of the Crimean War (1853-1856) gave way for politicians to take the suggestions of the Northcote–Trevelyan Report seriously. However, it was only until 1870, when the administration of William Ewart Gladstone implemented its recommendations.

In the United States the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 committed by a Republican activist frustrated for not being appointed to a diplomatic position, arouse the demand for a reform. Then during the government of Chester A. Arthur, the administration approved the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Other administrations then regulated the law, finalizing what was called the “dispossession system” which was the practice of demoting or firing all the employees of the defeated political party and replacing them with supporters of the winning party.

In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, the historical path was very different as a suitable bureaucracy to the service of the king had been made immune against pressure from local interests. In Prussia, the kingdom which later unified into Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, King Frederick established a rule that state workers had to comply their responsibilities in a different place from where they were originally from.

These professional bureaucrats would disdain representatives popularly elected, which gave way to profound tensions between political parties and the public service. These tensions were resolved before the Second World War and in Germany only after the war. However, the result was very similar, a bureaucracy respected by politicians to serve the government, regardless of the political party.

The perspective of joining the European Union provided incentives for countries influenced by the Soviet Union to reduce corruption. Of this group, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland are considered the less corrupt. Bulgaria and Romania, which later became members, are considered much less honest. Hungary has recently lost some of its reputation and Ukraine, considered the most corrupt of all, has not yet become a member of the Union.

All the countries mentioned above have different electoral and political party systems. A standard method, in political science, to compare them is that amount of effective political parties (the amount according to the electoral power or alternatively, the power it has in the parliament). Observing its effect on corruption, they discovered that the amount of parties in the electoral competition does not have a decisive effect. This is apparently counter-intuitive.

In fact, two opposing theories predict that the number of political parties in the elections does have an effect on corruption. The first one says that the greater the number of political parties in a political system, the greater the supervision over the action of a government. The second theory says that the greater the number of political parties in the political system, the greater the number of parties in the government coalition, thus greater the piece of the pie to share, and greater the corruption.

After analyzing 70 countries, they found that corruption is low in those where bureaucracy is professional and has a meritocracy, whether they have just a few political parties like in the UK, average amount as in Germany, or many such as in Denmark, Finland or the Netherlands. On the other hand, where bureaucracy is the loot of the victors, corruption is high, whether there is a low, average or high amount of political parties.

This validates the theory which says that proficient, independent and impartial public servants are a barrier against corruption. However, things are a bit more complicated than that. Despite France having a very professional bureaucracy, in the last three decades, it has been plagued with corruption scandals. Therefore there is no absolute warranty that illegal exchanges between politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen may be banished with an independent and impartial civil service. However, progressing in this direction may be more effective than trying to turn the political class in the scapegoat of all problems.


Consejo Editorial