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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Presidential corruption metrics

"Of course you know we are fighting against corruption. There are a lot of people in court; many of our generals are in court, we have never interfered with that. Why should just one case become a major issue?"
President Banda responding to accusations that his government has given up on the fight against corruption. The context includes a related statament where he says, "[Zambia] is not a banana republic; it doesn't belong to anybody....If [the donors] are fed up with us, they should just pack their bags and go where they come from. We are an independent state and I think that they should give us a chance to follow the laws which they left behind." I have a lot of things to say on this, especially the last sentence, but I shall leave that for another time. My immediate concern is President Banda's success criteria for his fight against corruption. His Excellency appears to make an elementary confusion between outputs and outcomes. The defence of  "having a lot of people in court" is an output measure, which is not necessarily a good thing (or does not necessarily indicate a good outcome). There are two reasons for this. 

First, it can be argued that the "flow" of cases to courts appear to have increased. The data on this is unreliable but those interested in this question can start here (please let us know what you find). If true, and that is a big "if", it may suggest our detection of corruption may be improving, but it may also suggest that as a nation we are increasingly failing to deter corruption activities. If it is the latter then we must see our current efforts as inducing a significant social cost. The whole idea of good law enforcement efforts is that no one ever gets prosecuted because it becomes too costly for people to undertake crime (in a way, crime becomes "internalised").

Secondly, although the flow of cases to court may have increased, the real problem is that the volume of cases at our courts (the stock) is high. In other words, there's significant congestion of corruption cases at our courts as these cases take a long time to resolve and by the time cases are done people serve short sentences. So, the large volumes of cases we see is simply a feature of an inefficient judicial system. Justice is not being done, all things being equal (I accept that procedural justice sometimes demands that cases must be painstaking - the economic question is how the associated costs  are then allocated - we don't want poor victims of corruption ending up subsidising these cases, as was the case in the Chiluba trial).  That being the case, we have nothing to celebrate per se at seeing "a lot of people in court".  

What we actually need to focus on are outcomes. What do we want to achieve with our fight against corruption? I would say our goal should be to reduce corruption in a just and efficient manner. Our policy metrics should therefore be output based measures such as court volumes coupled with outcome based measures e.g. the cost benefit to society of each case. "Timeliness measures" as indicator of procedural efficiency (not justice) and justice confidence measure which gauges how confident / satisfied ordinary Zambians feel regarding the fight against corruption.  For justice to work, it is critical that wrongdoers are not just punished but are seen to be punished. Hence public confidence measures are absolutely vital.

Use of these metrics would allow President Banda to come up with better policies on reducing corruption.  For example, it might suggest that what we need is a new judicial process for convicting corrupt criminals that is swift and definite (I have previously suggested "special corruption courts").  There is no point of having many people going through the courts, if you cannot actually convict people efficiently and at minimal cost to the tax payer. A corruption fight without an efficient and independent court system has little deterrent effect on corruption - and is therefore a pure social cost. There are a number of critical reforms which could be developed from having the right metrics of success - but the starting point is for Mr Banda to move away from looking at outputs (number of people in court) and focus on outcomes (reduction in corruption). I also hope those putting together the Sixth National Development Plan are thinking along these lines across different sectors.

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