Corruption is one of those terms that people frequently use and generally think they understand. But the everyday social use of the term can be somewhat hard to define precisely, even though we commonly say to ourselves about corruption that, 'we know it when we see it'.

While ICAC operates under a strict statutory definition of corruption, it is worthwhile taking a closer look at the more basic and common idea of corruption, what it is, and how it occurs.

In this vein, Australian philosopher Seumus Miller makes a distinction between ‘corruption’ and ‘corrosion’. For Miller, corruption refers to those deliberate acts that go against the purpose of an institution, e.g. a public officer taking a bribe. With corruption the harm done is intended and foreseeable.

Corrosion however refers to the myriad smaller problems (shortcomings, misunderstandings, failures, lapses, trivial negligences, missed opportunities, minor errors, shortcuts, omissions and misconduct) which may all contribute to slowly undermining an institution’s purpose.

Miller uses the example of a court system in a large jurisdiction to illustrate how he sees corrosion impinging upon an institution’s operations and functions. But for our purposes we can simply imagine any small, medium or large government agency. Like many agencies, this one is subject to budgetary pressures and escalating demand on resources.

The agency has also experienced the recent departure of key experienced staff. New staff are less well trained than before and fewer are being hired. The overall workload steadily increases but not so drastically that staff and outside observers see severe problems.

Over many years these impositions and pressures lead to lower quality decisions and operations from the agency. Heavy workloads, policy and operational changes, staff overturn, lack of oversight, and many other pressures and distractions mean the declining quality of the agency’s work goes unnoticed. And even when problems are noticed they are tolerated. Despite the employees in this agency striving to do their best and not being individually corrupt, the agency at large finds itself undermined. The institution’s purpose has been corroded.

Miller discusses that certain acts and behaviours (mentioned above) may lead to institutional corrosion. But these acts do not amount to corruption, as they are not intended to cause harm and may not be seen as potentially having a negative effect. However, the accumulative impact of these is corrosion, or the unintentional undermining of the institution’s purpose.

What Miller does not explore is that corrosion of this type creates the conditions which enable and encourage actual acts of corruption. The overworked and disenfranchised manager decides to divulge confidential information to fast-track some work. The understaffed office doesn’t notice that equipment is going missing, or that corporate credit cards are being misused. Conflicts of interest are ignored during a major tendering and procurement process. Or the proper recruitment process is not adhered to, and an unqualified staff member repeatedly abuses the power entrusted to them.

Where Miller discusses corruption and corrosion, the South Australian Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Act 2012 makes a distinction between corruption and maladministration/misconduct.

Maladministration and misconduct can be seen to be similar to corrosion in that they are negative behaviours or processes not necessarily or consciously intended to undermine an institution’s purpose. The ICAC has repeatedly found that maladministration is the breeding ground for corruption. Commissioner Lander noted in his 2015-16 Annual Report:

'It is my firm view that corruption and maladministration are, in the majority of cases, inextricably linked. When investigating alleged corruption by a public officer it is often easy to identify underlying maladministration that has provided the opportunity to engage in corruption, or has at least undermined the likelihood of detecting it. 

In some cases, underlying malaministration is of such an extent that improper conduct cannot be prosecuted or subject to disciplinary action because it has effectively been condoned by superiors, often for significant periods of time.' 

ICAC can investigate potential issues of serious or systemic misconduct and maladministration in public administration, but it is the responsibility of all public institutions to ensure workplaces do not unconsciously become corroded. Corruption  lurks in the spaces and practices that have been corroded in myriad small ways through neglect, over work, ignorance or apathy. Being mindful of this may help stop corruption from visiting your workplace.

We may know corruption when we see it, but do we notice the corrosion around us that makes it possible?

This article was published in Issue 8 - January 2018 of ICAC's newsletter.