The Wall Street Journal’s Corruption Currents blog just blew my mind with this news item (paywall):
The [US State] department recently amended its procurement regulations to allow foreign nationals to handle acquisitions of $25,000 or less, but only in countries with a score of at least five on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, an annual survey that measures the perceived levels of public-sector corruption.
As readers of this blog well-know, the CPI is arguably the least appropriate tool to use in this situation. As TI itself warns, using CPI results to compare countries to one another and/or track change over time can be inappropriate and misleading. The raw data that feed into the CPI can change from year to year, depending on whether a particular third-party data provider chooses to cover a country, and movements in a country score might result from the simple movement of others’ on the index. In TI’s own words:
Given its methodology, the CPI is not a tool that is suitable for trend analysis or for monitoring changes in the perceived levels of corruption over time for all countries. Year-to-year changes in a country/territory’s score can result from a change in the perceptions of a country’s performance, a change in the ranking provided by original sources or changes in the methodology resulting from TI’s efforts to improve the index.
Additionally, how does State plan to handle countries not covered by the CPI due to methodological constraints? To quote TI again:
The 2010 CPI covers two countries fewer than last year’s edition. The slight change resulted from individual sources adjusting the range of countries they assess. These adjustments in coverage made it possible to include Kosovo for the first time, but led to the exclusion of Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname, for which only two sources of information were available this year.
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of presenting some thoughts on corruption measurement issues to a number of State Department colleagues under the auspices of the German Marshall Center at an event in Zagreb, Croatia. On the margins of that presentation, I heard (in hushed whispers) concerns about certain bureaus at State misusing the CPI for inappropriate purposes. I never got the details, but now worry that the Journal has put two and two together.
Since we’re in the mood of offering free workshops to governments, here’s my proposal, State Department: give me 30 minutes with the people involved in this decision. If they come away from that conversation still comfortable with this approach, that’s fine. But let’s try to find a better way of pegging policy to governance and corruption data. We can certainly do better than this.
— Nathaniel Heller (a former State Department employee)
— Image: Evan Leeson (Flickr cc by/nc/sa)