The 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) came out this week — and the United States slipped further down the rankings. Now in 23rd place, tied with France, the United States has dropped seven points and stands seven places lower than its 2015 ranking.

Should Americans care? Yes — here’s why.

Since 1995 Transparency International (TI), an anti-corruption nongovernmental organization with over 100 chapters worldwide, has published an annual league table of the world’s most- and least-corrupt countries. TI analysts collect data from a range of sources before then adapting it so that every country ultimately ends up with a score between 0 and 100. The nearer a country scores to 100, the better it’s doing in tackling corruption.

Denmark and New Zealand are star pupils

The 2019 best performers were Denmark and New Zealand (both with a score of 87), although a host of predominantly Northern European countries followed close behind. At the other end, Somalia (again) finished at the bottom of the pile, with just nine points. South Sudan (12), Syria (13) and Yemen (15) did little better.

The broader picture isn’t encouraging. Few places appear to be making serious progress in tackling corruption, and just over two-thirds fell below the symbolically significant 50-point mark, a sign that systemic corruption remains a widespread problem.

It’s not easy to measure corruption

The data, of course, are not perfect. As I’ve explored here in past TMC articles, TI’s approach does create a number of problems. The CPI does not, for example, actually measure corruption — instead it measures perceptions of corruption by combining survey data and other organizations’ assessments of corruption. TI argues that while perceptions aren’t the same thing as actual corruption, perceptions of what’s going on in a specific place can be every bit as important as what is actually happening.

The very notion that any country or territory can even theoretically achieve a perfect score — or even a flat zero — also makes little sense in practice. Agreement on what the perfect “corruptionless” entity (or a country where corruption is all-pervasive) does not exist. Furthermore, in practice it’s not clear that there’s any meaningful difference between the U.S. score of 69 (2019) and 71 (2018) — or 76 (2015).

But are there trends to watch?

All these caveats notwithstanding, my research suggests the CPI does have its uses. We can still get a feel for which countries are making progress. Greece, for example, has made sustained efforts to tackle some of its corruption problems, and its score has improved markedly. Greece now sits 48th (with 60 points) — compared to 94th place in 2012, with just 36 points. In the long run, the feeling that Greece is making progress has to be good for the country in both political and economic terms.

And we can see who’s backsliding. Australia (down eight points since 2012) and Canada (down seven points over the same period) currently find themselves in the “could do better” category.

Here’s where the United States has fallen short

So what explains the recent U.S. slide — and what can be done about it? Corruption is always a context-specific story, but the United States has slipped in three specific areas.

First, successful anti-corruption policy centers on transparency and accountability. Reports such as this one by the UNDP make a strong case that clear lines of accountability improve the quality of governance, and sharpen attempts to fight corruption. Openness and transparency also need to be default settings. These are both areas where the United States could improve. The tone set by President Trump, whether by refusing to publish his tax returns or personally profiting from his position as president is indicative of a much broader problem. Neither transparency nor accountability are ever absolute, but analysts find plenty of scope for the United States to improve.

Second, the more opaque and complex the relationship between money and power, the more difficult it is to pinpoint and counteract corrupt relationships. Again, getting this right is not an exact science — and there’s no perfect system for funding political activity. But campaign finance, along with lobbying, are what corruption scholar Michael Johnston calls influence markets — areas where the wealthy can trade money for influence on policy outcomes. In other words, the rules and regulations let rich benefactors buy themselves a hearing. Yes, there are countries in worse positions, but that doesn’t hide the fact that the United States is also far from a model pupil.

And third, fewer Americans now trust either the politicians that rule them or indeed the institutions that help shape public life. Successful anti-corruption is built around integrity management, which requires public servants to act in appropriate ways — but also be seen acting in such ways. The highest ethical and moral standards — and transparency about potential conflicts of interest and recognizing when personal and public interests clash — would let U.S. citizens begin to believe that a cleanup of American government was underway.

Data from the CPI illustrates that the United States is still in a much better position than most other countries around the world. But it also shows that in recent years corruption challenges have continued to emerge. For countries that have slipped down the ranks, reports like this raise important questions, and open discussions about how to fight back against corruption.

Dan Hough is professor of politics at the Center for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex. He is the author of “Analysing Corruption” (Columbia University Press, 2017) and regularly tweets from @thedanhough.

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