Risking your career for your principles? A new case study on navigating corruption in public administration

Oenone Kubie writes about the Case Centre on Public Leadership’s latest case study, which provides an insider view to some of the personal, moral, and professional dilemmas public servants face when attempting to tackle corruption.

Estimated reading time: 3 Minutes
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Clientelism - the exchange of goods and services for political support - in the distribution of government jobs is an endemic issue around the world, as political leaders use recruitment to build and sustain political support.

This form of corruption can come at a cost to public services when political considerations lead to the selection of less competent individuals.

The dilemma

In May 2022, Jay Adan1 was appointed as the most senior civil servant in his state’s interior ministry. Adan believed that in this role he would finally be able to make the sort of substantial changes he had joined the civil service over 20 years ago to pursue. In his first few months in charge, he launched several policies and programmes that were changing the way the interior ministry worked. The ministry was already gaining a reputation for ‘getting things done’, something the minister would likely benefit from in the following year’s elections.

But six months into his role, Adan faced a difficult challenge. Part of his job was to approve all new recruits hired to the ministry. He had just received a list of 116 candidates recommended for vacant posts in the emergency services department within the interior ministry. Right away, he suspected that the recruitment had not been conducted fairly, transparently or legally. Not only did the list clearly fail to meet the legal quota for women, but there were also 14 more candidates selected than vacant spots advertised. Furthermore, Adan had received several complaints from the national anti-corruption office of applicants claiming that the process had not been meritocratic.

Adan conducted his own investigation which suggested that some of the candidates were woefully unqualified. For instance, someone had been recommended to the role of ‘flood rescue technician’ who Adan knew did not have the requisite nursing or paramedical qualification. Such recruitments, Adan feared, could put lives at risk.

Reviewing the evidence, Adan thought that the list was the result of patronage – a rampant issue in the region. Some politicians in the state used recruitment to gain political support, and Adan had reason to believe that the interior minister was doing just that as he headed into election season.

“In an ideal setting, I would have cancelled the recruitment and restarted it,” Adan reflected. He had the formal authority - and, to his mind, the legal duty and moral imperative - to do so, but he knew that blocking the recruitment could come with steep costs. Adan was not new to the sometimes-corrupt ways of government administration; when he was a more junior officer, he had refused point blank to sign off on a request for an unnecessary procurement worth US$2 million (Adan believed the value should have been closer to US$50,000). After his refusal, Adan was moved out of his post within a week, and he and his family became the subject of a number of frivolous anti-corruption complaints as a form of retaliation. Meanwhile, his replacement went on to approve the procurement request, which had been further inflated to US$2.2 million.

Now, if he chose to block the recruitment, Adan worried he would face similar consequences: he might lose his job and likely never be given such a senior posting again; he and his family might face intrusive investigations; and his successor would likely sign the approval anyway. Moreover, the projects which he had personally pushed for in the interior ministry would almost certainly be abandoned. But still Adan hesitated: “I know you have to lower your standards of honesty to remain in this system and to be able to manoeuvre and contribute, but I’m not sure my personal morality will allow me to approve this list.”

What would you do in Adan’s shoes?

Given the ubiquity of the issue, it is important for future public leaders to learn about the experience of, and nuances involved in, trying to work within a clientelist system.

For Blavatnik School Professors Tom Simpson and Chris Stone, the faculty co-authors on this case study, these nuances were central to the learning objectives of the case. The faculty have used this case to teach a range of public leaders, from our MPP students to senior civil servants, how to work through the challenges of navigating a clientelist system. In the classroom, students consider how they would weigh up their own personal objections to approving a corrupt request against the potential good that could be done by remaining in post. They then propose, discuss, and analyse different strategies for navigating this complex, but all too common, scenario.

Beyond platitudes and moral absolutism, and far from providing an easy or correct answer to Adan’s dilemma, this case study delves deep into the heart of the ethics and strategies required to work within a corrupt system while trying to combat it.

For more information, you can email the Case Centre at casecentre@bsg.ox.ac.uk

'"Sign Here": Politics and Integrity in Public Administration' is available at The Case Centre for instructors wishing to use it in their own teaching.

Name disguised to protect the identity of the protagonist given the highly sensitive nature of the subject matter.