Public Integrity and Trust in Europe

marie-therese culliganMarie-Therese Culligan is a UCD Master of Public Policy student. Here she assesses the report on Public Integrity and Trust in Europe, prepared by the European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption and State-Building (ERCAS), Hertie School of Governance, Berlin 2015. Principal Investigator: Prof. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi.

This report was commissioned by the European Commission during the Dutch Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2016, as one of a number of reports to contribute to ‘ongoing international dialogue on strengthening the public administration and developing evidence-based integrity and anti-corruption policies’.

It makes an important contribution to a subject of considerable importance in European public policy. There has been a well-documented decline in trust in politics and politicians across Europe since 2008. It may be over-simple to suggest that this is only due to the economic situation. This report ‘is an attempt to provide an objective account of the deterioration in the perception of governance, of public integrity and general trust, as they have occurred between 2008 and 2015 in European Union member states.’

There is much evidence across the EU 28 that trust in public institutions has declined dramatically since 2008. This decrease has not been even across all member states, but the general trend is downwards. Nordic countries have higher levels of trust in their governments and politicians; some West European nations have also seen declines; but newer accession states tend to trust the EU more.

A key contribution of this report is to argue that trust thrives when equality is high and public policy commitments run on universalist as against particularist principles. Universalism is defined as entitlement- or merit-based access to services or social advancement; particularism in this context means that access to services or opportunities relies on personal or partisan connections or on partisan or other selective forms of favouritism.

Individuals’ self-reported perceptions of corruption (via surveys) and experience of actual corruption are often markedly different. The report suggests, for example, that in-depth knowledge about the EU is low in most member states. This lack of knowledge highlights the difficulty with relying on perception-based surveys. It seems that having poorly detailed knowledge about EU institutions is not a deterrent to reporting a lack of trust.

The authors are more interested in whether, based on actual data captured from EU public procurement databases, favouritism in the government procurement process is in evidence. It concludes that it is, and looks particularly at the existence of single bidding. ‘In countries of Central and Eastern Europe, 25% of public procurement is executed through single bidding, with the proportion reaching around 45% in some countries, such as Poland. Southern European countries have a high proportion of “favourite companies” which make sole bids for many public tenders and regularly win gross shares of public funds’. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum are countries where ‘competition for public funds is the norm, and “dedicated” tenders practically do not exist’. In the UK and Ireland, the report indicates, ‘sole bids make up less than 5% of procurement, and the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the Nordic countries show consistently low percentages of single bidding. The rest of Western Europe lies below the EU average with 8% to 16% of public procurement being assigned to single bidders.’

However, the authors worryingly report that across the EU ‘50% of citizens believe that success in business will only follow exploiting political connections’, which does not indicate democratic access or fairness.

The methodology of the report is particularly interesting: it reports on an original database they have compiled on the functioning of public institutions. Rather than relying on perception-based research alone, they have developed an Index of Public Integrity (IPI) consisting of six measures which could be used to determine and devise policies to counter particularism across the EU. Briefly, the index is made up of measuring red tape versus administrative simplicity; trade barriers and trade openness; transparency and e-Government; audit capacity; the independence of the judiciary, and citizen engagement.

The IPI collates some existing indices such as the Ease of Doing Business Index (Administrative Burden, Trade Openness), Global Competitiveness Report (Auditing Standards, Judicial Independence), UN E-Government Survey 2012 (E-Gov Services), and Eurostat (E-Gov Users).

The report states that this ‘index of public integrity can therefore also explain public trust to a great extent. In contrast to the perception-based measures of governance, our indicator allows us to trace a country’s performance back to specific actionable components which can help policymakers to identify areas of reform that will yield improvement.’
Developing an objective measure for corruption is positive and a departure from using perception research alone to assess trust. Using public procurement data gives a clear indicator of particularism in operation.

The authors do not suggest that their IPI is a panacea for restoring trust across the EU. But they propose five actions, based on their analysis, which could be considered by policymakers to assist in restoring trust in the EU. These include:

  1. Evidence-based integrity policies are not only desirable but within reach.
  2. Diversity of contexts calls for multiplicity, not uniformity of solutions.
  3. Intelligent societies prevent corruption before it happens.
  4. Target the real countries, not the legal countries.
  5. Politicians matter more than civil servants in redressing trust.

It is an ambitious proposal but a necessary one for the EU and individual countries within the EU to adopt, if trust across the EU post the 2008 recession is to be improved.

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