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Here’s this year’s (flawed) Corruption Perception Index. Those flaws are useful.

- January 27, 2016

On Wednesday, Transparency International (TI), the world’s leading anti-corruption organization, is publishing its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The CPI is a great tool for ensuring that corruption and anti-corruption measures remain on the public policy agenda, but we should nonetheless be very wary of taking its findings too seriously.

The CPI has been around since 1995 and measures how much corruption is perceived to exist in the public sector. The 2015 edition includes data on 168 countries and territories, each of which gets a score out of 100. The nearer to 100, the better the country is doing in its fight against corruption.

The 2015 results are in many ways predictable. Denmark (91) came out on top for the second year running, and the other Nordic countries also did well; Finland (90) came second, Sweden (89) third, and Norway (87) tied for fifth. Also in the top five: New Zealand (88) at fourth, and the Netherlands (87) tied with Norway at fifth.

At the wrong end of the table, Somalia (8) and North Korea (8) came in tied for 167th (and therefore last), and war-torn states, such as Afghanistan (11), Sudan (12) and South Sudan (15), fared dismally.

Predictably, the best performing countries share a wide array of characteristics. They are open, liberal democracies with a free press. They embrace the notion of transparency, therefore helping citizens see where their hard-earned money gets spent. They have independent judiciaries, and all support long-held assumptions about increased accountability leading to lower levels of corruption.

The past year nonetheless saw a number of countries perform noticeably worse than they did in 2014. Brazil and Lesotho’s scores, for example, dropped five points each, while Guatemala and Angola were both four points worse off than they were a year previously. The Czech Republic, Rwanda and Kuwait, on the other hand, improved their scores considerably.

Other countries (China, for example) also jumped up quite a few places (in China’s case up from 100th to 83rd) in the table. But it’s worth noting that seven (mostly Caribbean) countries slipped out of the index altogether in 2015, boosting many countries’ standings without the countries needing to do anything at all.

What’s more, jumps like China’s often have more to do with other countries having gotten worse than with any inherent increases in the effectiveness of that country’s efforts to fight corruption. China remains a good case in point; its score went up by one point (from 36 to 37), yet it jumped 17 places — which tells you that a number of other countries in broadly similar positions were indeed performing worse than they were in 2014.

The CPI has its limits, as academic research shows

It can be fun looking at tables like this, and many people will indeed do precisely that over the next few days. But we should be careful before reading too much into the data. The CPI is a particularly poor tool with which to judge a country’s anti-corruption successes and failures. Academic research highlights four reasons why.

1. Corruption is complex. A single score is not. 

First, boiling down a country’s corruption troubles to one score is, to put it mildly, methodologically problematic.

The CPI is basically a poll of polls, a composite index that combines data from a range of surveys and other assessments of corruption. The data isn’t collected by TI, but rather by other organizations. TI simply brings everything together to create one score for each territory.

Yet the type, scope and extent of corruption evident in, say, the city administration of New York is likely to be altogether different to that which you’ll find in, for example, rural Kansas. Computing one score to accurately cover such variety is always going to be very difficult.

Furthermore, measuring concepts, such as democracy, justice, fairness and indeed corruption is hard at the best of times, but those who do it well acknowledge that their attempts are always approximations. Indeed, statisticians have developed their own language to discuss the problems in getting these measurements right. None of this is overtly acknowledged in the CPI. This has led researchers, such as Theresa Thompson and Anwar Shah, to cast doubt on whether this data can be put to any real use at all.

2. Measuring not corruption itself, but perceptions of corruption 

Second, TI doesn’t claim that the CPI measures corruption, but rather perceptions of corruption. While knowing more about how citizens perceive a phenomenon certainly has its uses, it is also plausible that perception and reality might differ considerably. This gulf may well mean that the CPI is actually (and inadvertently) distorting reality, simply reinforcing stereotypes and cliches.

3. Measuring perceptions only of public-sector corruption, not that in private business

The CPI looks at perceptions of public sector corruption — in other words, in and around governments only. It says nothing about corruption in private business – say, the Libor scandal in Britain, or the recent VW emissions scandal in the United States. These events involve private actors, but they have very real public impacts, whether on the interest rates that people pay on their mortgages or on public health.

Corruption is everywhere

Finally, regardless of where they are ranked in the CPI, all countries still face corruption-related challenges. Denmark might be at the top of the 2015 CPI, but even in Copenhagen you’ll find corruption — whether that’s allegations of favoritism in making public appointments or a 2014 European Union report saying that 12 percent of Danes reported knowing someone who had taken a bribe and 20 percent considered corruption to be widespread in public procurement.

A country’s position in the CPI in relation to other countries is only relative. Even the highest scoring nations still have work to do in rooting out corruption.

So is the CPI useless? For some researchers and for some purposes, certainly. But the CPI is Transparency International’s global calling card; it won’t change fundamentally. Its actual usefulness in measuring corruption might be limited.

But the CPI helps to keep the fight against corruption on the agendas of policymakers and the global commentariat. Its existence — and even its flaws — can prompt critics to imagine better ways of conceptualizing, measuring and ultimately counteracting corruption.

And that may be its real contribution: prompting the rest of us to try to understand exactly where the corruption challenges lie, and what we might want to do about them.

Dan Hough is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex.