The role of local and regional authorities in preventing corruption and promoting good governance

Committee of the Regions (CoR), Brussels, Belgium, February 28th, 2017, 10am – 5pm

According to an old Slovak saying, ‘a fish stinks from the head.’ However, when it comes to state governance and a country’s progressive democratic growth, evidence suggests that it might be more effective and feasible to address deficiencies and fill the gaps at local and regional levels.

On Tuesday February 28th, there was a Joint Conference of the Committee of the Regions and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. This brought together MEPs, experts, practitioners and academics from across Europe who are involved in the sphere of anti-corruption and good governance. They presented varying viewpoints and multiple perspectives but they all agreed on the fundamentals:

Corruption is a transnational phenomenon. It is a systemic, complex and multifaceted problem endangering the stability and success of any government. It does this by causing voters to lose trust in their highest officials and posing a viable threat to the principles of decentralisation and democracy. Corruption’s cost is extremely high in that it can significantly decrease the quality of services provided to citizens. Karl-Heinz Lambertz reiterated the importance of perpetuating the fight against corruption and promotion of good governance in ensuring the survival of democracy and the consolidation of the rule of law.

Most importantly, however, if the ultimate goal is a strong, trustworthy and transparent national and European governance framework, the fight against corruption must begin at lower levels. This requires the commitment and dedication of local and regional authorities to do everything in their capacity to strengthen the core of established governance mechanisms. Gudrun Mosler-Törnström, reminded the plenary that local and regional authorities manage the highest share of public expenditure and European funds. In fact, “Regional authorities manage 32% of EU public expenditure [and] a large share of structural funds [is] managed by regions,” added Carl Dolan.

“Regional authorities manage 32% of EU public expenditure” – Carl Dolan, Transparency International EU.

This is why “repression isn’t enough,” said Laura Ferrara. “To recognise and address systemic corruption it is necessary to act early, to focus on prevention and monitoring, and to “mainstream the culture of legality in schools and among youth.” Otherwise, the lines between what is normal and legal and what is unacceptable, i.e. corruption, will become indefinable.

Among some of the possible and already applied solutions and preventive practices mentioned at the conference were the following:

  • Holders of public office are to set an example to their citizens;
  • Public officials should rotate in and out of their public roles regularly to promote independence and merit in local administrations;
  • Implement control mechanisms to monitor the transfer of money between different levels of government and the close administration of the rule of law;
  • Work diligently to make local and regional offices more effective and less bureaucratic. “The more complex the bureaucracy, the easier it is for corruption to infiltrate,” asserted Laura Ferrara;
  • Municipalities should be encouraged to be involved in experience-sharing and information-exchange programs, including theAnti-corruption experience sharing programme launched in 2015 by the European Commission;
  • Reinforce checks and balances at the local level. According to information from the2014 Anti-Corruption report mentioned by Irina Steruriuc, European Commission Team Leader in the Fight Against Corruption, the checks and balances at local levels are less strict than at national levels. This can allow those with discretionary powers to avoid accountability and control mechanisms;
  • Establish legislation that universally protects investigative journalists and whistleblowers in the European Union on local, regional, national and European levels.

Codes of ethics and conduct

The second half of Tuesday’s discussions opened with Christoph Demmke of the College of Europe identifying codes of ethics and codes of conduct as essential components of good governance and as effective instruments in preventing corruption at all levels. Patrick von Maravić, Chair of the Advisory Group on revising Congress Code of Conduct, highlighted the role that such codes play in fostering ethical decision-making processes and harmonising standards in heterogeneous, highly decentralised settings. Without undermining the significance of such codes, Gjalt de Graaf of Vrije University underscored the weight carried by the process of drafting codes versus the existence of codes themselves. Good moral leadership is more than a good code of conduct because what matters the most is how leaders deal with drafting the code and subsequently the code itself.

Markku Markkula reassured his colleagues and peers that anti-corruption is a thematic priority for the Committee.

In the end, however, “there is no one [clear] recipe that always works, [but] there is one ingredient that predetermines success, [namely] general political will to fight corruption” (Irina Steruriuc).

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