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Shifting the blame to bureaucrats: How political corruption can hide behind bureaucratization

Are reformers at the political level stymied by unprofessional or corrupt bureaucrats, or are politicians writing laws that are never meant to be implemented? Matt Loftis presents the first empirical evidence that politicians delegate to trusted bureaucrats to diminish political responsibility for policy.

The Romanian Senate unanimously passed Law 144 of 2007 establishing a National Integrity Agency (NIA) on May 9, 2007. At the time, I worked at Transparency International Romania (TI-Romania), a non-profit advocacy group focused on the fight against corruption. TI-Romania had helped draft the first version of the law back in 2004 and had watched as new versions were repeatedly modified and rejected by Parliament over the years. So, that day the whole staff gathered around the television to hear the news. The mood in the office was sceptical, but a little optimistic. The European Commission's first monitoring report in the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was due soon and a negative assessment could lead to the activation of the safeguard clause. That pressure might finally have paid off in the form of an independent agency to investigate high-level corruption.

One year later, unfortunately, optimism had fully given way to scepticism. The NIA still barely existed and was not functioning, though the year had been full of activity. Like much legislation in modern democracies, many of Law 144's details were left to administrative departments and agencies without being spelled out exactly in the text of the law. In this case, an Integrity Council was to be organised by the administration to manage the NIA's launch. The Council was organised quickly but its work was stymied by administrative difficulties, with confusion over its responsibilities requiring three modifications to Law 144 in its first year. The search for the NIA's president was relaunched twice due to bureaucratic delays before the post was filled by the organization's original vice president. Those delays were particularly problematic because the agency's vice president lacked authority to do the president's work in his or her absence [1].

These difficulties played out largely outside the public eye, especially in Western Europe, due to the fact that these were administrative details. The European Commission, for its part, took the legislative developments as evidence that the fight against corruption was moving forward. For example, one of the NIA's roles is to investigate incompatibilities and conflicts of interest by members of parliament that might lead to their removal from office. The CVM monitoring reports noted that ANI pursued many such cases, but did not report that almost all of them failed in court due to minor procedural issues related to documentation. The Romanian government had managed to check the right boxes to demonstrate a commitment to reform, allowing it to avoid negative repercussions in spite of the delay and ineffectiveness of the legislated reform.

Examples such as this abound in which the aims of legislation and their actual implementation diverge badly. Are reformers at the political level stymied by unprofessional or corrupt bureaucrats, or are politicians writing laws that are never meant to be implemented? The latter is the more troubling possibility because it implies that politicians are actively implicated in hiding corrupt intentions behind seemingly good, or at least harmless, laws.

In newly published research, I find that this can often be the case [2]. In the paper, I present a theory of how politicians can sometimes accomplish corrupt goals with seemingly normal legislation. The key is to write legislation that delegates important details to bureaucrats, and it only works if politicians have informal control over subsequent implementation because they can exert pressure on the bureaucracy. In many newer democracies, the political independence of the bureaucracy cannot be taken for granted, so this can be a viable strategy.

The finding comes from studying policymaking in the ten countries that joined the EU between 2004 and 2007 [3]. In the run up to EU membership, these countries passed hundreds of policies to prepare for accession. The paper uses surveys of local business owners to measure political corruption in the legislature and government. Several indicators are used to measure the political independence of bureaucrats. Though political corruption and political control over bureaucrats did not always go hand in hand, where they did policy making was more discretionary. That is, those countries used fewer laws, decrees, and other legal instruments to pass the policies required for accession to the EU. This lower level of detail in their legal frameworks, thus, left more discretion to bureaucrats.

This pattern holds even controlling for a set of important mitigating factors, including: bureaucratic-level corruption, the ideologies of the parties in government, the complexity of the EU policy being passed, the number of parties in government, and others.

The following figures map this out [4]. The first, Figure 4 in the paper, uses political competition to measure bureaucratic independence. Other research has shown that more competitive political systems tend to have more independent bureaucracies, so the paper uses the legislative seat share of the largest party and the volatility of the cabinet parties' seat shares over time to capture how competitive the political systems are [5]. The plots show that more competitive systems don't delegate more or less to bureaucrats as political corruption is greater. However, where politicians can manipulate the bureaucracy because competition is lower then greater political corruption is associated with more delegation to bureaucrats.

The second plots, Figure 5 in the paper, show the same test using a more direct measure of bureaucratic independence: regulatory quality as measured by the World Bank Governance Indicators.

Corruption and governance will soon make their perennial reappearance on the public agenda in Europe. Monitoring for Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia's accession to the Schengen area continues to be a major political issue and monitoring reports for other EU candidate countries are forthcoming. Even within the EU, the quality of justice systems and the fight against corruption remain in need of improvement.

The research indicates that a crucial principle for future monitoring is to check the substantive quality of implementation and not merely take the presence of a legal framework as evidence of progress. When corruption is combined with political control over the public administration, policies can turn out much different from their original legislation.


* Matt Loftis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark. His research focuses on themes of blame-shifting, political accountability, agenda-setting, and transparency.

The author wishes to thank Iulia Coşpănaru, Deputy Director of Transparency International Romania, for comments on this post.

[1] For a fuller history of the National Integrity Agency, see TI-Romania's annual National Corruption Reports from 2007 onward at:

[2] Loftis, Matt W. (2014) “Deliberate Indiscretion? How Political Corruption Encourages Discretionary Policy Making,” Comparative Political Studies, doi: 10.1177/0010414014556046

[3] These are: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

[4] The lines are predictions from a statistical model. The gray areas around the lines are 95% confidence bands on the predictions.

[5] See, for example: Grzymała-Busse, A. (2007). Rebuilding leviathan: Party competition and state exploitation in post-communist democracies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Lonean, I. (2012). Relaţia dintre partide şi stat ca efect al competiţiei politice: Sistemul de partide şi partonajul în politica românească [The relationship between parties and state as an effect of political competition: The party system and patronage in Romanian politics]. Sfera Politicii, 169, 82-91; O’Dwyer, C. (2006). Runaway state-building: Patronage politics and democratic development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Spendzharova, A. B. (2008). For the market or “for our friends”? The politics of banking sector legal reform in the post-communist region after 1989. Comparative European Politics, 6, 432-462.

Author : Matt Loftis

12 Mar 2015

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