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Specialised anti-corruption institutions: measuring their performance and managing our expectations

The difficult tasks of preventing, investigating and prosecuting corruption are being undertaken by growing numbers of specialised anti-corruption agencies.
11 June 2023
A close-up photo of five people dressed as superheroes, showing heads and torsos
Investigating and prosecuting corruption is a tough job. Those fighting our fight should get our support. Photo:
Eman Rahman/Flickr

Anniversary blog series

U4 staff and friends celebrate U4’s 20th anniversary with a blog series reflecting on developments and lessons learned in a world of ever evolving corruption challenges:

  1. U4 at 20: A quiet birthday at home with friends (across the world) – Peter Evans
  2. Specialised anti-corruption institutions: Measuring their performance and managing our expectations – Sofie Schütte
  3. The role of technology in anti-corruption: Dystopian reflections – Daniel Sejerøe Hausenkamph
  4. Strategic litigation and its untapped potential for anti-corruption – Sophie Lemaître
  5. The anti-corruption community should become more ‘tribal’ – David Jackson
  6. Corruption risk management in the aid sector: past, present, and the path ahead – Guillaume Nicaise
  7. Corruption is unaffordable for Latin America’s resurgent left: Democracy and lives are at stake – Aled Williams and Daniela Cepada Cuadrado
  8. Corruption is absent from the UN ‘World of Debt‘ report – Daniela Cepada Cuadrado
  9. Anti-corruption games: Learning how to face corruption challenges – Guillaume Nicaise and Rachael Tufft
  10. a) Gender and corruption: What we’ve learned from 20 years of research (Part 1) – Ortrun Merkle and Ina Kubbe
    b) Gender and corruption: Charting the course for the next 20 years (Part 2) – Ortrun Merkle and Ina Kubbe

And other blogs to come throughout 2023!

Sign up to the U4 Newsletter to get updates, or follow us on Twitter | Linkedin | Facebook.

The number of specialised anti-corruption institutions has grown exponentially during the last three decades, especially since 2003 when the United Nations Convention against Corruption required the existence of one or several bodies in each State Party to oversee and coordinate the implementation of corruption prevention policies (Article 6), and the combating of corruption through law enforcement (Article 36).

The number of specialised anti-corruption institutions has grown exponentially during the last three decades.

Have anti-corruption agencies (ACAs) offered real added value or are they mere political and diplomatic window-dressing? These are recurring questions that unfortunately often come with overgeneralised and under-evidenced answers that provide few insights for concrete policy improvement.

This blog post is part of a series celebrating U4’s 20th anniversary and reflecting on developments and lessons learned in a world of ever evolving corruption challenges and our strategies to catch up, if not get ahead of them. This is also the period of time that I as an adviser and researcher have worked for and on anti-corruption agencies, studying the dynamics that lead to their establishment, their design and aspects contributing to their effectiveness.

How many anti-corruption agencies are there? As of June 2023, the International Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities had 159 members.

How many anti-corruption agencies are there? As of June 2023, the International Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities had 159 members. Yet, as with many other things the overall count depends on the definition. Functions can be split across agencies, with bodies that have a preventative and awareness-raising role more common than those which also have an investigative mandate. Some standalone agencies also have a prosecutorial mandate. And some may also include special anti-corruption units within existing law enforcement bodies in the count.

Economies of scale and the need to focus resources, including expertise, in one agency has been one argument for standalone specialised anti-corruption entities. The inability or unwillingness of existing law enforcement agencies to effectively handle corruption cases has been another.

The biggest growth of standalone agencies with an investigative mandate has occurred in countries where existing law enforcement bodies were unable to successfully investigate corruption cases, and in many instances were even part of the corruption problem. Investigating and prosecuting corruption is a tough job. It puts limits on the private and social life of law enforcers. They cannot just mingle like the rest of us but must strive to avoid bias and conflicts of interest. They must always be on their best behaviour, so as not to make themselves vulnerable to blackmail. They may receive overt or direct threats, and increasingly counter lawsuits. Ideally, they are part of an institution that addresses some of these risks, provides ethical guidance and legal and physical protection. But in practice, some of the risks can come from within their own institutions, especially when senior leadership is not sufficiently insulated from politics.

In some cases, new agencies have been set up in the hope of circumventing corrupt ones, if not to clean them up.

Special efforts have been made to insulate the new agencies from bad influence and common pitfalls, starting with carefully designed appointment and recruitment procedures to ensure their independence and integrity. Many ACAs are also equipped with special authorities for accessing data, searching, and seizing assets. Guidance on key principles and capacity building have been provided. And as misconduct does not stop at investigation and prosecution level, a growing number of specialised courts have been established to deal with the cases coming from the agencies.

With special authorities come high expectations...

With special authorities come high expectations… One of the main challenges of ACAs has been expectation and reputation management. An agency’s success or failure is as much a function of its actual interventions as of its ability to build alliances with other accountability institutions and manage expectations. Especially those agencies with a law enforcement mandate are expected to swiftly achieve convictions in high-profile cases. Conviction rates are used as a crude yardstick for enforcement performance. As a standalone indicator it provides little information and cannot be attributed to investigation performance alone. It would be important also to know the gravity of the offences and length of sentences, and whether those convicted also include government officials (and those in higher ranks) or only the political opposition (and lower ranks). It is even more difficult to say whether convictions or conviction rates have any deterrent effect, just as it is challenging to measure the outcome of awareness-raising campaigns, and corruption risk assessments and other preventative work. Challenging, yet not impossible (see U4 wisdom on this: How to monitor and evaluate anti-corruption agencies and Bespoke monitoring and evaluation of anti-corruption agencies).

Unfortunately, broad judgments based on corruption perceptions surveys are often countered by mere input and output reporting: for instance, “an ACA has received that much funding and held that many awareness-raising events and arrested so-and-so-many people” whereas the country’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranking has once again not moved in the right direction. Least helpful are those who then declare all anti-corruption agencies a failure or waste of resources, not taking into account specific contexts, not distinguishing between different functions, and making no allowance for changing performance over time. Changing political context as well as individual personalities and personnel changes can play a major role in the effective running of an organisation. ACAs go through organisational lifecycles, just like any other organisation, and we may see their performance fluctuate over time.

Conviction rates are used as a crude yardstick for enforcement performance. As a standalone indicator it provides little information and cannot be attributed to investigation performance alone.

We cannot measure and compare performance of an ACA without keeping in mind the institutional framework and organisational capacity. But context and resource constraints are not an excuse for poor decision-making and execution. We should expect ACAs to proactively manage expectations as part of their public outreach and show their worth by clearly defining and stating their objectives at the output and outcome levels and by collecting and analysing information on a raft of indicators.

If I had to make three wishes for the next 20 years these would be:

  1. The International Association of Anti-corruption Authorities and/or regional networks actively encourage and monitor adherence to good practice and standards, as well as calling out instances when ACAs are undermined. A role model could be the work of the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions and its framework of professional pronouncements. They could perhaps even follow the steps of human rights commissions and their accreditation by the UN Human Rights Council. ACAs could be downgraded or lose accreditation if institutional frameworks no longer meet certain standards.
  2. Anti-corruption agencies take responsibility for defining, transparently communicating and measuring progress towards their output and outcome objectives; this can complement indicators measuring the implementation of national or sectoral anti-corruption policies.
  3. More institutional support, including legal and public relations advice, to those working in anti-corruption institutions who are ‘fighting our fight’ on modest public service salaries, taking on well-resourced high-profile offenders and increasingly facing negative personal repercussions. Regional and international networks could play a more supportive and consolidated role, possibly connected to the monitoring of principles for ACAs, for example the protections their staff are afforded.

    About the author

    Sofie Arjon Schütte

    Dr. Sofie Arjon Schütte leads U4’s thematic work on the justice sector, including specialised institutions like anti-corruption agencies and courts. Previously, she worked for the Partnership for Governance Reform in Indonesia and the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission and has conducted workshops and short-term assignments on corruption in more than 15 countries. She is editor of the series of U4 publications on anti-corruption courts around the world.


    All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

    This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


    Eman Rahman/Flickr