Orders from Above: Curated Resources Exploring Social Norms and Public Authorities

Header image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay.

By Cori Simmons

From traditional anti-corruption initiatives to social accountability programs, so much of our field’s practice is focused on the behaviors of public authorities, be they local officials, ministry bureaucrats, or elite leaders.

Like anyone, public authorities are influenced by the pressures and expectations of the people they interact with and whose opinions they value. That is, they are influenced by social norms – this we know. But what other informal pressures do public authorities experience and are these the same as social norms? What follows here is a curated list of the key resources we’ve encountered that address this question and distinction – which, to our knowledge, is a largely unexplored one.

In one stream of our Social Norms and Corruption work, we have grown preoccupied with this question: how do social norms impact public authorities – and is that influence the same as it is in broader society? This question first came up for us while facilitating a systems assessment with public authorities in Uganda on behalf of the DFID supported Strengthening Uganda’s Anti-Corruption Response facility (SUGAR).

Taking a social norms perspective to understanding corruption, we know that pressures and expectations from one’s peers, community members, or family can be a driver of corrupt patterns of behavior, easily overpowering personal morals or attitudes. But, what if the person pressuring you to behave in a particular way is your boss? Or a colleague you respect? If your boss tells you to do something, can we really call that a social norm? Or is it simply your boss giving you an order? If that’s the case, then how should we think about this power dynamic?

If your boss tells you to do something, can we really call that a social norm?

Given that duty-bearers are an important element in corruption research and work, we should explore this distinction. It seems, at face value, intuitive: Of course professional contexts differ from social contexts – but do social norms govern behavior in both? Of course public authorities are the products of their broader societal norms – but do they bring those exact norms with them into public life? Do these norms then change in some way? Do they get stronger, weaker, or result in different behaviors? Or, do public authorities hold new or different norms as well?

What has become clear from our recent Thinking Together event (one component of our ongoing collaboration with CARE Nederland) and the initial results of our literature research, is that these questions and distinctions remain relatively unexplored – at least holistically, within the anti-corruption community. So, we are now following this line of inquiry, with the hope of shedding more light on the intersection of social norms, corruption, and the behavior of people endowed with public authority.

What have we found? Below is a subset of the key resources we have identified so far in our literature review  – specifically those at the intersection of corruption, social norms, and public authorities. We are now delving into related fields of social norms theory, public administration, and organizational behavior. We hope this quick set of key resources will be of value to both practitioners and researchers working in these spaces, interacting with public authorities and/or studying the norms that drive their behavior.

  • “Anti-corruption through a social norms lens” Köbis and Jackson, 2018, U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre.

In this broader work on the social norms approach to anti-corruption, Köbis and Jackson outline a simple and informative model for understanding the layered effects of social norms on public authorities (pages 4-10). By setting apart and naming the ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ pressures within a professional organization, and nestling them within the larger societal and kinship norms with which we are all familiar, U4 helps us think about the interconnectedness of these types of norms – while also presenting them as different elements. The explorations of these vertical and horizontal pressures – both how they’re formed and how they’re employed – are also useful for understanding the behavior of public authorities and the strength of the social norms which govern that behavior.

  • “Enhancing Inclusive Governance in Fragile & (Post) Conflict-Affected Settings: An exploration of social norms related practices affecting public authorities” Phillips, Whipkey, and Noble, 2019, CARE Nederland.

Given CARE’s focus on ‘bottom-up’ development approaches, this resource is very focused at the local level, and takes a broader view of ‘public authority’ to include de facto leaders and informal power holders. The most comprehensive work we’ve seen on this topic, CARE Nederland adapts Bronfenbrenner’s Socio-ecological Framework, placing the public authority at the center of a similarly ‘layered’ set of influences (pages 12-13). As this report is the result of CARE Nederland’s Every Voice Counts program, it is also deeply practical – identifying explicit norms found in their work and outlining approaches to changing those norms.

  • “A Socio-Cultural Approach to Public Sector Corruption in Africa: Key Pointers for Reflection” YeboahAssiamah, Emmanuel, Kwame Asamoah, Justice Nyigmah Bawole, and Issah Justice MusahSurugu, 2016, Journal of Public Affairs.

One of the only academic papers we found on this niche topic, Yeboah-Assiamah et al use a ‘socio-cultural’ approach to understanding corruption among public sector employees in Ghana, with implications for broader Sub-Saharan African contexts. This paper systematically reviews norms (though often using the language of ‘culture’) prevalent in Ghanaian society, which have entered into public life through these authorities. They do this primarily by presenting and deconstructing common Akan proverbs – a treat to read through. While specific to their context, the systematic nature of this paper is useful for any practitioners trying to make the connection from culture to norms to the behavior of public authorities – and all the complexities along the way.

  • “Hidden agendas, social norms and why we need to re-think anti-corruption” Baez-Camargo and Passas, 2017, Basel Institute on Governance.

One installment of a major research initiative, this Basel working paper is focused more on elite level capture and grand corruption. Basel’s work is a nice complement to other research in this space, which focuses more heavily on local authorities or the pressures on junior-level public authorities. Basel deconstructs for us the role and implications of “informal governance” – the unwritten rules underlying social norms – in the public sector.

Have we missed anything? If you work in this space – with public authorities in contexts of endemic corruption – and have more resources or learnings to share, we would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or reach out!


 About the author

Cori Simmons is a Research Associate with the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program, supporting the Social Norms and Corruption project. She is a master’s candidate at The Fletcher School, studying Development Economics and Humanitarian Studies. After graduating from Suffolk University with a BA in International Affairs, Cori has worked with several agencies, including World Vision International, US Peace Corps in Togo, and Evidence for Policy Design at Harvard Kennedy School.

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