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David Thunder, researcher Ramón y Cajal at Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Navarra. He is the author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Institutional corruption requires a cultural response

Fri, 09 Nov 2018 10:31:00 +0000 Published in The World

At times it seems that Spain is living a kind of permanent nightmare of corruption, whether in the form of plagiarism of university degrees, theft or "detour" of public funds, or "compromised" public examinations. In such unfortunate circumstances, the growing cynicism of the average citizen towards their public institutions is perfectly understandable.

It is difficult to know with certainty the true level of corruption in economic and political institutions, because by definition, the corrupt acts that come to light are only those that are publicly discovered. However, it appears that fraud and illicit "favors" affect a large issue of public institutions, whether educational, economic or political.

The press and the courts have been able to uncover the identity of some of the protagonists of corruption and describe their machinations, sometimes with an admirable level of accuracy. But merely having a greater knowledge of the facts of corruption will not end the underlying problem. Until there is a political and moral will to tackle its real roots, corruption will continue to grow like a cancer in our political, economic, and educational institutions.

It is said that institutions are only as effective and just as the people who comprise them. Many of the potential reforms in our public institutions will be in vain if they are not accompanied by a hard work of cultural reform. If we are to combat the corrupt practices that are plunging our public life into dishonesty and injustice, we need to examine the internal culture of the institutions involved, as well as the overall cultural context that facilitates the consolidation of those practices.

Culture, i.e. the attitudes, customs, and informal norms of a social environment, is a determining factor in the development of any human organization. If we remain at the level of legalisms or institutional design without addressing these cultural factors, we will never understand the sources of criminal and irresponsible behavior. For example, if we attempt to institute institutional procedures to police financial corruption, without reforming the customs and attitudes that encourage and protect corrupt behavior, financial actors will be able to apply their talents and knowledge of the law to circumvent anti-corruption regulations. "The law is made, the trap is made."

Unfortunately, our businessmen, political leaders and journalists often tend to focus on the superficial facts of corruption without delving into its cultural roots and without defining the defining features of a corrupt institutional culture. Therefore, while we may be able to identify isolated instances of corrupt behavior, we seem to lack the conceptual tools to interrogate the cultural pathologies that underlie them.

If we are to reach an accurate diagnosis of institutional corruption, we must begin with a better understanding of the personal failings of the individuals involved. Institutional corruption is typically not limited to a single act, but expresses a vice, that is, a stable disposition to act unjustly or irresponsibly, on the part of a person or a group of persons. Its counterpart, virtue, is a stable disposition to act honorably, justly or manager. Vices come to us quite easily. Virtues, on the other hand, are only acquired through patient learning and training, with the financial aid of credible role models.

If we want to go beyond the level of analysis offered by the circus of accusations and counter-accusations that we so often find in political parties, we need to understand the ethical culture of our economic, political, and educational institutions, that is, the human tone, attitudes, narratives, and expectations that, together, define the human meaning of the institution. We need to deepen our understanding of the cultural conditions that tend to favor the development of human virtues. Only in this way will we be able to ensure that regulatory reforms find a more or less receptive institutional culture.

Several programs of study of institutional corruption have demonstrated that the ethical tone of an institution, especially as reflected in its leadership and senior management, is core topic to motivate and support individuals who aspire to conform their conduct to the highest standards of their profession and to act honestly and fairly on all occasions.

If so, then regulatory reforms should be complemented by a rigorous and independent assessment of the ethical tone that permeates our public institutions, in particular the character and mindset of their leaders and senior management; the standards expressed in institutional narratives, customs and expectations; and the operating rules, written or unwritten, that guide employees in their day-to-day work. This assessment should be headed by individuals known for their high professional ability as well as their impeccable character.

Public institutions, and eventually private ones as well, could derive significant benefits from an independent assessment of their internal culture, since the mere fact of submitting to an independent assessment would show a serious willingness to combat corrupt practices within the institution. Moreover, if public and private institutions were to respond proactively to the recommendations of independent reports, they could begin to rebuild the public trust and credibility they have lost in recent decades.