Social Norms vs Anti-Corruption Laws: And the winner is???

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

Visualize this: you walk into a meeting in a government ministry office and one of the officials is wearing his official prison attire — a yellow jumpsuit.  He has come to the meeting directly from prison where he is serving time for a corruption conviction.  The conviction itself is a success of the 2009 Uganda Anti-Corruption Act (or maybe not, but we will address that later).  Yet, his attendance in the meeting marks an epic fail for Section 46 of the same Act which disqualifies a convicted civil servant from holding a public office for a period of ten years. This post, based on a participatory analysis conducted for the Strengthening Uganda’s Anti-Corruption and Accountability Response (aka SUGAR), identifies the unwritten rules (i.e. social norms) within the civil service that stymie consistent application of administrative sanctions.

In 2018 – the last year of available statistics – 28 convicted civil servants remained on the Ugandan government’s payroll and four continued to receive their pensions.  This, despite the widely held interpretation of Section 46 being that any public servant with a corruption conviction is to be removed from the payroll and pension. Effective enforcement of this Section would require several Commissions from different Ministries such as Inspectorate of Government (IG), Justice Service Commission (JSC) and the Public Service Commission (PSC) to collaborate.

What social norms were identified?

Four social norms were identified within the collaborating agencies. In a nutshell, civil servants are expected to ‘protect their own’, ‘serve their boss – even out of bounds’, ‘avoid contributing directly to sanctions’ and to conduct ‘extensive consultation’ when processing a file.  All of which contributes to the inaction on administrative sanction, but to preserve brevity, we will explore one direct and one indirect norm.  

In the application of administrative sanctions within the Ugandan governmental bodies, civil servants are expected by their peers to find avenues, within official procedures, to help colleagues avoid punishment.  The expectation is that civil servants will assist colleagues through tweaking procedures in their favor or by avoiding calls to provide witness in corruption allegations against them.  In some instances, inaction in terms of simply not moving the file forward can enable the responsible officer to avoid contributing to the process. Interestingly, our process found that this norm does not extend to expectations of direct obstruction or active transgression of official procedures.

Those who do not follow this unwritten rule – in other words, those who do advance the administrative sanction of a colleague – can expect revengeful acts from the accused if they are cleared of the case and reinstated to their role. If the accused is found guilty, then their network within the government is expected to lie in wait to seek retribution. This could include taking advantage of any opportunity to unfairly treat or dismiss the affected officer for minor errors, unexplained transfers or demotion, or denying opportunities for promotion, travel abroad or work on well-paying projects. This serves as a powerful driver of inaction on administrative sanction within government institutions, making it very difficult to remove corrupt officials from the public service.

‘Avoid contributing directly to administrative sanctions’ is a direct norm; as such, it dictates a specific behavior as the correct action within a group of civil servants.  This is in contrast to indirect norms, which may have multiple behaviors that meet expectations. 

One of the indirect norms that obstructs the implementation of Section 46 is that public servants are expected by their “own” to act in a way that protects them, which includes minimizing the punishment, slowing the process, or blocking the attempt to pass the sanction.  In this case, their “own” refers to their extended network, typically consisting of families, friends, community members, clan, etc.  These are horizontal connections, meaning the group transcends the government institutional walls and the relationships are based on personal, not professional connection nor hierarchy. 

In the majority of cases, failure to protect your own will lead to the group imposing a negative sanction.  While being ostracized and alienated, the civil servant’s reputation will be harmed amongst their group, as they will be regarded as “useless” or “good for nothing”. Officials with whom we discussed social norms felt that the cost of not protecting your own is severe. A person suffers socially and emotionally because families and larger social networks play an important role as safety nets, especially in times of difficulty. Being cut out from social networks means people’s support systems, used in times of need and to celebrate significant milestones such as marriages or death, are severed.

Officials gave two examples: grandmothers who decline to provide care to their grandchildren born to the respective officer who did not use their official position to protect a relative; and colleagues not condoling with officials who lost a loved one. Officials who object to protecting their own could be left to their own fate, with the assumption that their work, viewed as more important to them, can fill the gap their family, friends, clan, or community members could have covered.

But the law is enforced sometimes, right?

To be fair, the Act is not always ignored; convictions are achieved and administrative sanctions actioned. There are a number of cases (16 at the end of 2018) that show civil servants being removed from the payroll after a conviction.  Unfortunately, we can not interpret these cases as indicators of true anti-corruption commitment. While there may be episodic application of the Act in service of its’ purpose, our process found that the mechanism was also being misused to punish those who were applying the law as it was meant to be applied.  Called being ‘fast tracked’, it is one of many channels of retribution available to those who want to send a message. The realities of this retribution will be explored in greater detail in a future blog post

Just social norms?

Clearly, there are a number of drivers, not just social norms that influence civil servant’s behavior relevant to administrative sanctions.  It would be simplistic to think otherwise.   Our team used causal loop mapping to develop an initial representation of how the various factors in the Commissions and government offices interact to help or hinder application of sanctions. The factors reach far beyond the mere technical administration of the laws and policies to include patronage-driven leadership and political interference, amongst a number of others. The systems map and narrative are available in the full report.

What was the methodology?

This post is based on our 2020 report: Understanding the Underlying Values, Norms and Behaviors Constraining the Implementation of Administrative Sanction in the Ugandan Public Service commissioned by Strengthening Uganda’s Anti-Corruption and Accountability Response Technical Assistance Facility.  The report was a product of a participatory systems analysis, conducted with a cross section of civil servants from the IG, JSC, PSC and others involved in implementing administrative sanctions.  As part of the analysis, social norms were teased out and then verified in a separate participatory exercise.   

It was this experience that sparked our current inquiry into the role social norms play within the civil service. If this topic interests you, we would suggest checking out Orders from Above: Curated Resources Exploring Social Norms and Public Authorities.


About the Author

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is the Co-Director of the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program at Fletcher which works to improve the effectiveness of anti-corruption programming in contexts of endemic corruption.  She is the Founding Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on issues related to accountability and learning across the Balkans and West and East Africa. As a Professor of Practice at Fletcher, she teaches on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning.

5 thoughts on “Social Norms vs Anti-Corruption Laws: And the winner is???

    • October 7, 2020 at 5:31 pm
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      Dear Dr Moki, Good point – doing a quality assessment of what drives and enables corrupt practices is just step one and arguably the easier one compared to identifying what to do in response. The wider systems analysis that we did (attainable by clicking the report link in the post) attempts to map out the system so that entry points can be identified. Based on this our team offered a series of Recommendations in the report ranging from dialogue processes to reinterpret meta-norms to harmonizing processes between Commissions. The report was only an initial study, so I am sure you would have far more insightful ideas.

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  • October 10, 2020 at 11:21 pm
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    Odd-Helge Fjeldstad’s “Corruption in Tax Administration: Lessons from Institutional Reforms in Uganda,” chapter 17 in International Handbook on the Economics of Corruption (Elgar 2006) provides a useful complement and extension to the authors’ findings. Fjeldstad chronicles Uganda’s 20 year failure to reform the revenue authority, one reason being social norms. Historically, a large percentage of revenue officers pay was in the form of housing, vehicles, and other non-cash compensation. Copying OECD best practices, reformers abolished all these allowances in favor of straight salary. The result?

    In a country with little or no social safety net, those in need rely on tribal and kin networks for support; the better off within these networks are expected to care for those less well-off. Full monetization of revenue officers’ pay increased their obligations to help those in their social networks. Indeed, the increase in salaries increased employees’ obligations to others, “forcing” them to take bribes to meet them. As Fjeldstad writes: “What looks like corruption from the outside is undertaken by some tax officers in a context where the reciprocal obligations of kinship and community loyalty require such behavior in order to be regarded as a ‘good person.’”

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    • October 14, 2020 at 6:25 pm
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      Dear Rick — Thanks for the thoughtful response and recommended reading. The findings you reference absolutely align with what we found in the participatory analysis as well as our 2016 analysis of corruption in the police and judiciary in Northern Uganda. [summaries available in the blog or full report in publications] We did that piece of work when we were developing the causal loop map analysis methodology so hadn’t conceptualized our social norms inquiry quite as deeply as we have now. Appreciate the input.

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