Rooting Out Corruption: A Case Study in Creating Change

This spring marked the debut of a powerful new force in civic literacy and civic engagement. The debut came in the form of a set of 50 report cards grading anticorruption mechanisms in each of the states. For the overall grades, there were no A’s, and there were 8 F’s. As reactions from politicians, the media and the public started pouring in, what was clear to me became clear to many. This project is unprecedented, and it’s laying the groundwork for changes throughout the country.

The State Integrity Investigation is a pioneering collaboration among the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, with major funding provided by the Omidyar Network and the Rita Allen Foundation. To grade the states’ ethics laws and enforcement, the project recruited on-the-ground reporters in each of the states and tasked them with evaluating 330 indicators in 14 categories, looking at oversight of each of the branches of government, the transparency of the budgeting process, and management of state resources.

What’s innovative about the State Integrity Investigation, beyond its sheer scale and ambition, is that it’s a data-driven assessment of the mechanisms states have in place to counter potential corruption. Past studies have judged corruption using measures like convictions for public corruption, and they have gotten results closer to the common wisdom; in one recent study, New York was named the most corrupt state and Chicago the most corrupt city. But that methodology has two big weaknesses. First, it doesn’t account for corruption that isn’t prosecuted. Convictions are at least a sign that there is a system in place for finding and punishing ethics violations.

Second, looking at instances of corruption alone doesn’t suggest what to do about it. In contrast, the State Integrity Investigation looks at specific laws and practices that are or aren’t in place. It points out innovations and weaknesses in each of the states, and it bases this analysis on evidence-based best practices. From here, a roadmap for improving and measuring success is not far away. It’s not just state governments that will play a role in defining the path forward; the study gives journalists and nongovernmental watchdog groups fuel and ideas, and it helps place individual incidents within a larger framework.

The investigation is already giving others ideas of ways to help. OMB Watch, which has long been an advocate for national transparency, has issued a report comparing the websites of state governments in light of the State Integrity Investigation’s findings, with the goal of giving states a relatively quick and inexpensive way to begin to respond to the results.

Media coverage of the report has drawn the public into discussions about corruption that go beyond specific scandals. Governor Terry Branstad cited the study’s results as he signed a bill to create the Iowa Public Information Board, which will oversee and enforce the state’s open records laws. The 2012 Leadership Forum, sponsored by the State Legislative Leaders and Brown University, invited CPI and Global Integrity to present its results as it sought to distinguish the source of the public’s lack of trust in politics. Reporters, editorialists, online comment writers, and public officials across the country are talking about the root causes of corruption, about what conclusions can be drawn for the nation, and about what should be done.

Studies of civic engagement have found that its key prerequisite is civic literacy – an awareness of how public services function and possible routes to improvement. The State Integrity Investigation is demonstrating that an ambitious nonprofit collaboration can have a strong and swift impact in civic literacy, and with it, civic engagement.