When a career bureaucrat with a corruption charge pending against him was chosen to be the chief vigilance commissioner, the Supreme Court nullified the appointment to protect the “institutional integrity” of the CVC.

This raises an obvious question: how can integrity be institutionalized in India where corruption in public life is pervasive, deep-rooted and ubiquitous?

The answer is to design a national integrity system with a set of mutually reinforcing anti-corruption measures — supporting each other when they are performing their function and checking when they do not. The primary function of an integrity system is to promote a positive value (integrity — the use of entrusted power for publicly justified purposes) rather than merely preventing its opposite (corruption — the abuse of entrusted power for private gain).

Corruption is not just a problem of individual “bad apples in government, business or indeed in any large organizational entity, but a systemic problem requiring systemic solutions.

The most common response is the creation of a single, very powerful, anti-corruption agency along the lines of the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption. However, this model places too much reliance on a dangerously powerful single institution.

In the 1990s, Queensland and Western Australia (two states plagued by recurring corruption scandals) took a new approach. Instead of a single institution or law, they focussed on the institutionalization of integrity through a combination of state institutions and agencies (courts, parliament, police, prosecutors, ombudsman, auditor general, parliamentary committees), NGOs and the social norms by which people live.

These collectively constitute an “integrity system” which not only operates to prevent corruption but to enhance integrity and effectiveness of governance. This approach has been given various names including an ethics regime- infrastructure, but the term with the widest currency is “national integrity system” which was promoted by Transparency International, the world’s best known anti-corruption NGO, as the central means for reducing corruption and promoting integrity in developed and developing countries alike.

Every country has an integrity system of some description. Even if it is not effective in promoting and supporting public integrity, it will generally contain some institutions or entities that could become vital elements in an effective integrity system. Institutions that play no part in the integrity system in one context may play a prominent role in others (such as the Catholic Church in 1980s Poland).

The social activist Anna Hazare movement in India, for which the surprising surge of public support forced the government into a humiliating climbdown, falls into this category. But to focus solely on the Lokpal omnibus anti-corruption bill now being drafted by a mix of government and civil society nominees would be to fall into the trap of relying too much on one institutional solution that could become either lopsidedly powerful or be subverted from within. In an effective integrity system, the relationships among the various elements of the system will be based on powers and responsibilities set out in the constitution and other laws, on mutual involvement in each other’s knowledge gathering and policy formation, and on support for each other’s operational effectiveness. Some relationships will be supportive, some procedural and some will involve checks and balances.

The National Integrity Systems Assessment (NISA) is an ambitious mechanism developed by a U.N. University-affiliated governance center in collaboration with Transparency International and completed for three Australian jurisdictions as well as Georgia and Indonesia. The process seeks to map, describe and assess the effectiveness of the entire set of institutions designed to reduce corruption and enhance integrity. It examines their overlaps, conflicts and mutual supports by studying the operational interactions between them.There are significant variations in integrity systems and there is no one model, western or otherwise. While integrity systems overall tend to perform similar functions, the specific institutions that perform them may vary from one jurisdiction to another.

The robustness, resilience and effectiveness of integrity systems is not merely a function of the strength of the component institutions but of their interactions with one another (what makes it a system). Outcomes such as reduced corruption or increased transparency are rarely achieved by a single actor alone but are generally the result of the work of several actors. Each component in the integrity system has to understand its own role and the roles of others with which it interacts.

The best way to build an integrity system is not to try to implant a foreign model but build on what already exists. The process may involve significant changes in existing institutions, the creation of some new institutions and building links between them. NISA begins by identifying the range of institutions and mechanisms that make up the relevant “integrity system” — that enhance accountability, raise ethical standards and performance, ensure powers are used for the purposes for which they are intended, and make corruption more difficult to pursue and easier to detect.

Next, NISA describes each of those institutions and mechanisms in their operational context and documents the treaties, rules and codes that govern them and the societal values that support them.

Once the relevant integrity system has been mapped, the strengths and weaknesses of the current integrity system are assessed and areas of potential risk from which corruption might develop are identified. On that basis, proposals are made for further improvements and reform, concentrating on ways to make existing integrity institutions more effective.

The popular rage that Hazare tapped into and harnessed to fuel his movement to curb corruption proves that the common citizen has a working moral compass that reacts with revulsion to the cascade of mega-corruptions sweeping the country. That is an excellent core around which to map and consolidate a national integrity system in India.

Professor Charles Sampford is director of the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law headquartered at Griffith University. Ramesh Thakur is international relations professor at Australian National University and adjunct professor at IEGL.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.