Measuring Corruption

One strong reaction to my article on transparency from last week was that my logic was off. I used the increase in lobbyists and spending on lobbyists as an example that transparency wasn’t actually solving any corruption problems. It was pointed out that an increase in spending could be an indicator of success— if the cost of lobbying is going up, some argue, that must mean that its getting harder to do. The problem though is that that, too is conjecture. How is the transparency community supposed to be successful without meaningful ways of measuring success?

According to Google about 2005, the public has perceived whichever Congress as the most corrupt Congress in history. Take a look at this Google timeline of the phrase “the most corrupt congress”. It’s clear to me that — despite Google’s relative inaccuracy, “the most corrupt congress in history” has been and will be a catchphrase used by the minority to describe the majority for years to come. Liberals will call conservative-run Congresses “the most corrupt”. Conservatives will call liberal run congresses “the most corrupt”.

Why is transparency and corruption such a great weapon for the minority? Because presently, they’re unquantifiable. We need a better means of measuring whether this stuff is actually working. Arguing about the deltas of corruption in Congress is like arguing about climate change without all the science.

There are some transparency projects that do have clear measurable success metrics. They’re the parts of transparency field that do not fight corruption head on. For instance, victory for Carl Malamud’s law.gov project is, well, the creation of law.gov, and free and open laws. Free and open access to the law is a definable, simple objective and that’s why I gave Carl’s project my money and you should too.

But what of the transparency that is supposed to fight corruption? How are we supposed to know our dollars and time are actually going to good use if there’s no way to actually measure it?

Public perception as a metric is dangerous and wrong. Measuring how interested the public is in the ethics of our Government only makes transparency advocates into sensationalists, trying to garner public attention for things sometimes not worthy of it. It enhances the “most corrupt Congress in history” problem, drives up cynicism for no reason, and doesn’t actually solve any problems.

“Number of Congressional Investigations” may seem like a good idea, but keep in mind it takes a member of Congress to call for one, so that won’t work either. Once we start using that as a measuring stick, Congress will use Congressional Investigations as a weapon to further manipulate elections.

“Number of members of Congress impeached or resigned in shame” sounds a lot like speed-trap quotas for the state patrol. You want to create metrics that yield positive results. The environmental movement has “reduction of carbon emissions by x% a year” The budget hawks can point to a reduction in government spending. The humane society can point to the number of kittens it saved in a year, but transparency has no way of measuring corruption.

Illicitness is part of the problem. That most of this stuff is dealt with in back rooms, unseeable from the public by its very nature means that it’s impossible to measure. And thus far, we in the transparency community have nothing but conjecture to deal with. But illicitness is an excuse. After all, we’re able to measure the size of Black Markets, and they’re illicit.

And yes, you obviously run into the problem of— once it becomes a metric, it alters behavior. But ultimately, isn’t that the point of transparency? It’s not like real-time reporting will actually make lobbyists give less money to politicians.

It is hard work, but the answer has got to be in the data. Legislators generate content all the time— whether it’s the congressional record, bills, committee hearings, and public appearances. There must be patterns in that data that’s an indicator of a systemically corrupt Congress. Patterns within the data like the number of earmark requests, effectiveness of constituent communication, number of political parties held by lobbyists, and house expenditure reports, linked with historical data around known-to-be-corrupt members of Congress from years gone by and you ought to be able to see some indicators. Heck— simple phrase count caught members of Congress parroting lobbyists.

This is probably a job for some keen and well-grounded academics. But it can be done, and it ought to be done so that we can know for sure that we’re actually being effective in this space. Work’s being done, but if there are eyes to spare, this is where they belong. Without a way to tell if you’re successful, there’s no way for you to succeed.

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