2016 Democracy and Human Rights, Public Administration

Anti-corruption Reform – Evolution or Big Bang?

Anders Sundell

Corruption is one of the major obstacles to development in the world. The causes are, however, less understood. A proposed explanation for the failure of anti-corruption reform is that corruption is a collective action problem. Gradual and incremental reform is not enough to reach a tipping point. A logical conclusion from this line of thinking is that dramatic change is necessary to shock the system, onto a new path. The most prominent proponent of this idea is Bo Rothstein, who to a large extent has built his case on the Swedish experience of administrative reform in the 19th century, arguing that it took the form of a “big bang”. This thesis investigates the Swedish case and public administration in general.

The report was presented during the seminar Samhällsstyrning – nationellt och globalt.

Main findings

  • The Swedish process of building an impartial and professional is better characterized as a gradual and incremental development than a big bang. The case unfortunately reveals that there seems to have been no silver bullet in the process of building the impartial and professional bureaucracy for which it is known today.
  • The Swedish experience echoes the insights from countries struggling with informal payments in the public sector today. In Sweden, informal and semi-informal payments were common during the 19th century, under the Swedish name of “sportler”.
  • “Sportler” was described as an indirect tax that raised and distributed itself automatically, without the need for involvement by the state. Seen as a flawed but practical solution to problems of lacking administrative capacity the reform attempts therefore focused on formalization and regulation to improve the existing condition. Abolishment only came together with massive wage increases, and the eventual introduction of an income tax to finance them.
  • In Sweden, there are well- documented but anecdotal examples of recruitment through patronage and nepotism in the 18th century, whereas recruitment seems to have been more impartial towards the end of the 19th century.

Anders Sundell is a researcher at the Department of Political Science, Gothenburg University. He defended his dissertation Public Administration and Corruption: How to get the institutions that work at Gothenburg University in June 2015 .