From Grievance to Engagement – How People Decide to Act Against Corruption

What can anti-corruption organizations do to activate, catalyze and leverage citizen engagement in the fight against corruption? What insights about the underlying drivers and motivations that determine citizen engagement can help organizations devise and pursue more effective strategies? Can a more nuanced way of exploring, understanding and ultimately addressing citizens’ concerns help organizations become more effective in their efforts to nurture citizen engagement?

Despite a recent increase in the amount of work focused on understanding citizen engagement in the anti-corruption space, there remains a lack of conceptual clarity about how and why citizens decide to take action against corruption and how they choose to then engage in specific anti-corruption mechanisms. In addition, there is a lack of practical guidance for how organizations can take steps to explore ways of engaging citizens that are cognizant of context and that can be adapted if unsuccessful at first.

To address this knowledge and guidance gap, and to provide organizations with practical entry points, this paper follows a theory-of-change approach to unpack and test a number of assumptions that are likely to inform how citizens choose to engage in anti-corruption mechanisms. The aim is to help organizations identify and explore the logic of citizen engagement and to support them in thinking through their own strategies, including by disaggregating and exploring different factors at the macro, micro and meso-levels that influence the citizen-engagement process.

The key takeaway is a three-level theory of change, which illustrates how and why individuals decide to engage. It centers around a highly individualistic “cost-benefit” calculation that determines what type of mechanisms individuals deem “viable” in a particular context, given their set of (oftentimes fuzzy) preferences. This cost-benefit calculation is informed by a number of factors that are continuously assessed and reassessed as the individual progresses in using a particular mechanism. These factors include perceived relevance, credibility, safety, accessibility, responsiveness, trustworthiness and relatability of the mechanism. They are complemented by the importance of experiencing small wins throughout the engagement process. A key influence in this process is exerted by social contacts close to the individual who makes an engagement decision: Family, friends, peers, colleagues and other important social circles translate macro-contextual variables into experiences, language, facts and perceptions that can be understood and digested by the individual when assessing the corruption grievance and mechanisms available to possibly counter or resolve the grievance.

The theory of change proposed in this paper is the result of an iterative process engaging with the literature and the conceptual and practical challenges practitioners face when trying to tease out factors that enable (or prevent) citizen engagement. It was corroborated and triangulated through empirical work conducted in (and on) Tunisia and Georgia in 2017. It proposes and then unpacks relevant concepts and their relationship with each other at the macro, meso, and micro levels. As is inherent in the concept of a theory of change, it should be regarded as tentative and is meant to be refined and altered as anti-corruption organizations discover additional factors and relationships that provide an even more-nuanced insight into the logic of citizen engagement and the ways in which organizations might best react to it.

The implications of the findings differ by whether organizations work primarily at domestic or at global levels. Overall, organizations at both levels would benefit from being more explicit about the assumptions that guide their programming and from integrating insights derived from a global and comparative perspective with tacit knowledge generated at the local level. In addition, organizations would benefit from creating opportunities and processes to try out strategies, to take stock, to reflect, to adapt and to iterate, especially with regard to the assumptions they make.

Domestic actors would benefit from tailoring existent mechanisms to the different steps people take when discovering whether and how to engage. They should interrogate the mechanisms they employ and pursue approaches that address citizens’ expectations around the factors citizens deem important. Domestic actors would also benefit from leveraging insights about the direction of the public mood at the macro level to inform programming decisions beyond the provision of concrete mechanisms, including by paying more attention to the ways in which citizens are influenced by their peers.

Global-level actors would benefit from creating and supporting opportunities for local actors to try different strategies and to facilitate learning across boundaries. In addition, global actors should support cross-country research to provide a better understanding of the factors that matter in the different phases of the citizen-engagement process. A key ingredient to making research more useful is to create realistic expectations about when and how global programming can successfully inform thinking and practice in specific countries.


Johannes Tonn
Johannes Tonn
June 30, 2018