Often, corruption is compared with cumulus cloud in the sky. You can see the cloud; you can feel it and imagine different shapes. But can you measure it? Moreover, with the blowing of the wind, the shape of the cloud is constantly changing. Try measuring corruption; you end up facing a similar problem. First, corruption is an illegal activity organized clandestinely by, at least, two consenting adults. No wonder, corruption is also compared with sex. Like sex, children do not get engage in corruption. Corruption also takes place in darkness. Those who engage in corrupt transaction have inherent interest in concealing evidences; they rarely leave trail marks; witnesses are reluctant or simply scared to come by; and the victims are not visible at the scene of crime. It is extremely difficult to gather corruption evidences. Second, even if you decide to measure corruption what dimension are you going to measure? Do you measure the size of the bribe, its impact on the victims, the benefits derived by the culprits or loss inflicted onto the economy? Are you measuring attributes, causes or consequences of corruption? Given the fact that there is no universally acceptable definition on corruption, obviously, measuring corruption is a complicated business. Third, there is also selection bias in measurement. Where corruption problem is most severe, one finds little agreement on what constitutes corruption and, even less chances of information disclosure on corruption. There is another problem: a person who is studying corruption has also an inherent interest in exaggerating the problem. Often the very process of measurement distracts the subject matter being measured/observed. Try measuring corruption, say, in the custom department, it will invariably have shifted to, say, tax department. Research studies in Indonesia revealed that the introduction of strong public auditing system shifted embezzlement to hiring of friends and relatives in construction projects (nepotism). During royal regime, when Gyanendra imposed a strong anti-corruption measures like the deployment of army in public offices, it was reported that the frequency of corruption came down with concomitant rise in the size of the bribe money. The public officials were reported to be asking more bribe because, with the deployment of army surveillance, risk factor also went up. Businessmen from Eastern Nepal claimed that, if in earlier days, if the transaction could be easily done with say, a bribe of Rs500, now requires Rs5000. Measuring corruption is a tricky business: how you account for this trade off between frequency and size of bribe?
Definitely, corruption is difficult to measure. But it is also necessary to measure. Without hard data, how you monitor progress? Much of the interest in measuring corruption comes from a relative paucity of corruption data. Besides academic interest, one definite advantage from having a data on corruption is to depoliticize the issue. Corruption is a political hot cake. The political party in power always refuses to accept the problems of corruption while the opposition is interested in exaggeration. Recently, Prime Minister, Dr. Bhattarai refused to accept corruption problem; he carefully deflected the issue by responding that much of the present day corruption in the government has been inherited from the past. Policy makers in Nepal are used to prescribing solutions with a presumption that they already know the corruption problem. This is the fundamental problem here; people assume they already know the problem. Understanding corruption is a tricky business. If ones do even know what is the problem, how would you prescribe solutions to the problem? When such refusals, blames and presumptions are backed by hard data or facts, the problems of corruption is effectively depoliticized. A noise is separated from facts or true information.
Over the last 15-20 years, one can see an evolution in the field of measuring governance and corruption. There is a clear shift from first generation measures – that seek to measure corruption in global, aggregated terms – to second generation measures – that seeks to measure corruption at country-level, in disaggregated terms. Other than telling which country is most corrupted one in the world, the first generation measures have little use when it comes to providing actionable data for the policy makers. We have now a new debate on whether we should be focusing on perception or experience in measuring corruption? Most of the global measures focus on measuring corruption perception that too of foreign experts and multi-national business persons. The first generation measures are devoid of national ownership and entail no commitment. However, nationally generated corruption measures measure the actual, every day experience of corruption faced by the common citizens. Those who argue for measuring perceptions speaks that (1) corruption is too difficult to measure objectively, therefore, only option is to measure perceptions, (2) perception may not depict the reality, they may be subjective, but important decisions are based on perceptions. A businessman may undertake calculations on ROI and risk factors, at the end of the day, it is his intuition that gives a final say on his investment decision. (3) All kinds of measurement systems are subjected to margin of error. There is no escape from this. Supporters of measuring experience speak that every day corruption experience gives much need actionable data for introducing reform measures. Experience based measures are objective. The debate does not end here. The proponents of measuring perception say that measuring experience is useful only to the extent of measuring petty corruptions. They are useless when it comes to measuring grand corruptions like policy capture and nepotisms. Corruption surveys in India and Bangladesh clearly speak of measuring petty corruptions. In order to measure grand corruptions one has to rely on perception measures. There are others who argue that this dichotomy of corruption into grand and petty is useless and superficial. The impact of petty corruption may be equal or far more devastating than grand corruption. The bribery that takes place in the delivery of public services like education, health, drinking water and other essential services may be a question of life and death to a poor and marginalized citizen. Combating petty corruption is no less important than combating grand corruption. In India, small bribes paid by truck drivers runs into billions when one consider the total impact of petty bribery.
Experience may provide an objective indicator but people rarely get interested talking about their personal corruption experiences; people, in general, are interested to talks about corruption of others, not of theirs. We have a reporting bias here. In Mongolia public officials were found to be interested in talking about corruption done by the politicians and higher authorities, they rarely talk of corruption in their departments. Some tries to capture both elements -perception and experience- in their measurement tool. Still, they are not left without problems. First, there might be a wide difference between perception and experience. There is a greater chance of overestimating perception and there is a greater chance of underestimating experience. This had happened in India. There is wide difference in people’s perception of corruption and experience of corruption. People’s perception of corruption is also affected by class factor. Elites generally tend to perceive less corruption while politically and socially weaker and excluded groups tens to perceive corruption to be rampant. Corruption can mean different things to different groups of people. Second, people’s experience with corruption may not be related to perception. At times, it may move in reverse order. Where corruption is rampant, people also have a high tolerance for corruption, meaning they perceive corruption to be harmful. Third, people’s perception may not relate with experience. Their perception may be affected by every day media reporting on corruption scandals. With a couple of bold verdicts coming from the Supreme Court, sending former ministers behind the bar, people, in general, perceive corruption to have gone up in present day Nepal. Yeas back Albert Einstein left a riddle on measurement: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Probably, this riddle is no where best applicable than in the measurement of corruption.