Corruption hasn’t changed: a conversation with Frank Vogl

Joining CIPE for a podcast on Monday, October 2nd was Frank Vogl, a founding member of Transparency International and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Frank may be best known for advocating and agitating for stronger anti-corruption laws, transparency, and sanctioning, but we were reminded of his career as a journalist, including his time covering the Lockheed scandals that led to the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in 1977.

If you think a lot has changed about corruption since the passage of the FCPA, Frank will tell you plainly, that it hasn’t. The volume of bribery and illicit activity has stayed more or less the same – though it may subside a bit in some countries while flaring up simultaneously across an ocean somewhere. Civil society has been effective at establishing and urging the spread of anti-corruption principles, norms, compliance systems and laws – but the next phase, required to really make a dent in illicit behavior, is enforcement. While we’ve seen a head of state or two impeached over corruption and Odebrecht get jail time, many of the most egregious corruption cases only lead to fines. Frank made the important point that while several billion dollar fine may sound like a lot, for many multi-national companies and commercial banks, it’s considered just another cost of doing business.

Our readers who are compliance officers may be thinking: of course things have changed – we are the proof! Though the trends towards compliance systems and officers continue to increase in scale, complexity and price, there is little evidence to suggest that global corruption or its costs to the global economy and a country’s GDP or the welfare of its citizens has gone down. Compliance can only go as far as the culture it is in. Even Frank, hardly a fan of worn slogans, confirmed that a strong “tone-at-the-top” if backed by real commitment from leadership, is indeed effective – and this rings true for the public and private sectors alike.

Though the overall landscape of corruption has remained a scourge on economic development and equality, Frank seems relatively optimistic about civil society’s resolute pursuit to identify, monitor, and fight corruption. He argues that integrity pledges that clearly align ethical bosses, employees, and business communities together to advocate for corruption-free norms, reforms, and operating environments are a promising method for curbing petty and grand corruption.

On the tech side, Frank suggested open data portals for public procurement can help firms compete at a more level playing field – as in, you don’t need to take the Minister of Agriculture on an all-expense paid vacation to bid or win a project. One promising organization operating in this space is the Open Contracting Partnership which advocates for specific e-procurement reforms and supports the technical efforts by governments required to achieve them.

Frank reminded us of the important work being done by millions of people all over the globe – street protests against corrupt governments, anti-graft campaigns against corrupt officials, investigative civil society organizations and media, and most importantly, that the fight is far from over.

Louisa Tomar is a Program Officer for Global Programs at CIPE.

For more information on Frank Vogl, please visit his website at and check out his book, Waging War on Corruption.