Tackling corruption, the wicked problem

One needs to evaluate the fight against corruption in the context of its existence in several forms such as black money, bribes, scams and crony capitalism


The belief in prioritizing big corruption also hampers action against corruption.
The belief in prioritizing big corruption also hampers action against corruption.

There are problems. Then there are human behaviour problems.

Problems like we have in the fields of mathematics and engineering are well defined, the solutions for these follow a pre-determined path, and are predictable. But on the other hand, most human behaviour problems, as Prof. Horst W.J. Rittel and Prof. Melvin M. Webber of University of California, Berkeley explained, are wicked problems.

According to Rittel and Webber, in their landmark article published in Policy Sciences, wicked problems are inherently different from normal problems. Wicked problems are ill-defined and at the same time unique. The solutions to these problems have no stopping rule, a stage where one can say a definite solution has been found. It is also not possible to predict all the consequences that a solution to a wicked problem will generate.

Many of the societal problems we encounter like poverty, unemployment, sanitation, road accidents and violence against women are perfect examples of wicked problems.

In the last few weeks due to the emotional storm raised on account of the demonetization exercise, there has been much talk about the issue of corruption. Corruption fits all the descriptions of a wicked problem.

Corruption has many faces—from black money to bribes to scams to crony capitalism. There is probably no institution in India that can claim to be beyond the grip of corruption. Hardly any individual citizen in this country can say that he has not been affected by corruption. It is impossible to even give corruption an all-encompassing definition.

It is in this context that one needs to evaluate a fight against corruption. Even the language used in describing the fight has tremendous implications—from setting expectations to setting direction to evaluating success or failure. Phrases like “surgical strike” give rise to a feeling that the target is specific, defined and can be destroyed in one shot. Corruption, on the other hand, is a hydra with multiple heads. Even a massive exercise like demonetisation can at best chop one head off. Black money kept in high-denomination notes probably have already been stashed in new innovative safe havens. The government might take a few years to even unearth the new heads of corruption that have cropped up because of the demonetization drive itself.

The Australian Public Service Commission’s publication on tackling wicked problems notes that “part of the solution to wicked problems involves changing the behaviour of groups of citizens or all citizens”. Every society has deep beliefs that guide the behaviour of its citizens. Therefore, to make the continuous fight against corruption more effective, some deep- rooted beliefs, mental models in our society about corruption need to change.

The first belief that needs to change is that of “let him who is without sin, cast the first stone”. The next is to “catch the big fish before catching the small”.

Ours is a country where it is almost impossible to get a person who has not done at least one act of corruption. This mental model that only the non-corrupt can cast a stone at the corrupt is a selective and convenient interpretation to suit the corrupt. They can then go about their business without anyone pointing a finger at them. To justify one’s corrupt act, all they had to do was to point to another’s acts of corruption.

So each other’s acts of corruption created a comfortable corruption equilibrium—your acts balance my acts. Unless this cozy equilibrium of corruption is disrupted, the fight against corruption will never be a success.

Most religions and moral keepers of our society will remind us that we are holy not because we are not sinners, but because we have a strong desire to be right. So the fight against corruption can be led by anyone who believes that the old ways of working have to change. Every sinner has the right to cast a stone at another sinner. This will hasten the process of disrupting the cozy corruption equilibrium that exists between the corrupt in this country.

The belief in prioritizing big corruption also hampers action against corruption. This societal belief, clouded under the garb of natural justice, is propagated by the large number of not-so-big corrupt to protect themselves. They know very well that the few big fish of corruption have parked their ill-gotten wealth in tax havens. It is near impossible to bring that money back to the country, at least in the short term. This mental model of the big fish-focus only serves to ensure that the authorities are on a wild goose chase while they continue their acts of corruption unhindered.

One should have an absolute perspective on the issue of corruption. Black money is always illegal whether it is 100 rupees or 100 crore rupees. The quantum of punishment will vary depending on the quantum of illegality. But the absolute nature of illegality cannot, and should not, ever change.

In a fight against an issue like corruption that is so rampant, spread across all strata of our society, one should not be bothered about the hierarchy of corruption.

Tackling wicked problems necessitates triggering appropriate emotions. It is not the quantum of fines collected, or the large-ticket tax declarations, but the emotion of fear of the long arm of the law that will drive behaviour change.

The wicked problem of corruption will never have a perfect, all pervasive, single solution. So every act that reduces corruption should be applauded, even if the acts originate from the sinners.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm. Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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