Editorial Board

New U.S. Chant: We're No. 17!

Corruption rankings are fun, but actual case data is a lot more useful.

Corruption: great for protests, not for governments.

Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Is China much more corrupt this year than it was last year? How about Afghanistan? And, before you ask, what about Saint Vincent and the Grenadines? The answers, according to Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, are yes, no and no.

That sense of false precision, along with the worldwide obsession with rankings and some clever marketing, surely helps make the CPI so popular. But another survey on corruption also released last week -- the Foreign Bribery Report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- is more useful.

Documenting the 427 bribery cases that OECD member countries have concluded since 1999, when a worldwide anti-bribery pact came into force, the report not only illuminates who’s been paying what to whom and why, but also points to what more must be done to detect, prosecute and punish bribery across borders.

Some conclusions jump out: Senior management mostly knows about bribes, undermining the "rogue employee" myth. Most cases involve advanced, rather than developing, countries. The U.S. is the 800-pound enforcement gorilla, with more than five times the number of concluded cases than Germany, the next most active. The biggest bribe-takers tend to be employees of state-owned enterprises, accounting for 27 percent of the cases and 80 percent of the bribes. The extractive and construction industries account for nearly two-fifths of all cases.

The real value of the report, though, lies in its data on detection and prosecution. To wit, whistle-blowers generated only 2 percent of all cases; stronger whistle-blower protections would doubtless help bring more cases to light. The average time it takes to conclude a case has steadily increased, from two years in 1999 to 7.3 years in 2013. Prosecutions take time, of course, and some governments can take years to respond to requests for information. When those delays happen, requesting countries ought to be allowed to ask to stop the clock on statutes of limitations.

Governments also need to stiffen penalties, especially in bribery involving public procurement. These accounted for more than 240 cases, yet the number that resulted in the disbarment of a contractor from future bidding was laughably small: two. And a bribe-taker's ill-gotten gains were confiscated only 13 percent of the time, reflecting not only how hard it can be to trace assets, but also the lack of laws requiring such confiscation.

True, indexes and rankings help raise public awareness about corruption, inciting national pride or shame (and occasional resentment) as well as useful debate. Did President Xi Jinping's loud crackdown on corruption, and the accompanying lurid media exposes, cause China's 20-place drop in the CPI, which is based on polls of expert perception? What explains the improved performance of Afghanistan? How much joy should Americans take in the two-place improvement in their CPI rank, to No. 17? Is Denmark, after three straight years atop the rankings, ready to retire the trophy for national rectitude?

Fascinating questions all. Yet it's the detailed case data about corruption that can best help governments zero in on what must be done to stop it. Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but a good stiff scouring brush always helps on the toughest spots.