From Weber to the Web… Can ICT Reduce Bureaucratic Corruption?

  • Grzegorz MakowskiEmail author
Part of the Public Administration and Information Technology book series (PAIT, volume 25)


The main purpose of this paper is to analyse question if, and if yes, then what potential have information technologies to solve the traditional problems of bureaucracy—tendency to inertness, to depart from the mission to serve public good and to transform into one more interests group or structure susceptible to cronyism, conflicts of interest, corruption and other irregularities. The text is also a reflection on how new forms of control over public administration, driven by ICT may change it and push it towards participatory governance based on the principles of dialogue and civic engagement.


Civil Service Public Officer Public Administration Open Government Official Post 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Before we discuss the main topic of this paper, namely the arguments for the proposition that information technologies can limit the risk of administrative corruption, it is worth to cite classic authors in sociological theory and briefly describe the history of public administration in the very context of struggles to limit its dysfunctions. The paper will deal mainly with new technologies, but to better understand why today we believe it is the information technologies that can bring an answer to the question how to control administrative corruption, the deficiencies of the traditional methods to prevent and fight the problem should be highlighted. In that context, it will be easier to realise what is the contribution of new technologies in this field. And most importantly, it should also be reminded why at all the control over public administration is so important, in particular in democratic systems.

Bureaucracies and Bureaucratic Corruption

Max Weber, well over a century ago described the phenomenon of bureaucracy in sociological terms. He was fascinated mainly by his contemporary Western bureaucracies. In his opinion, they were closest to the ideal type of rational action (zweckrational) (Turner et al. 2012; 167–207). Nevertheless, one of the conclusions of his analysis of bureaucracies indicates that as they develop and grow larger, always the same problem arises, namely that they have the ironic tendency to compete for power with their political superiors. As he wrote in the book Economy and Society: “[…] democratic” Parliament; […] or the President elected by people, or hereditary “absolute” or “constitutional monarch—in relation to trained officers performing administrative tasks always remains in the position of a layman to an expert. And every bureaucracy endeavours to still increase this edge of professional expertise through making secret its information and intentions. Bureaucratic administration, in line with its inherent tendency, is always an administration excluding openness. Bureaucracy tries hard to protect its knowledge and actions from criticisms” (Weber 2002; 719). Namely, the main and permanent problem of bureaucratic structures is lack of transparency.

This brilliant observation made by Weber remains accurate and mostly valid to this day, independently of the fact that since his times, bureaucracies have undergone many revolutionary changes, though Weber thought that at his times they reached almost an ideal form and all that remained for them was, as it were, to “implode.” Weber repeatedly expressed his concerns that, chasing after heartless rationalism, bureaucracies would finally become unwieldy, irrational, corrupted and will pose a threat to other structures—in particular the democratic political system or developed free-market economy (Weber, p. 1072–1074). The Weber’s gloomy diagnoses were taken up by many of his successors, only to mention Robert Merton (Merton 2002; 255–266) or George Ritzer and his concept of “mcdonaldisation” (Ritzer 1997; 39–63).

The problems with bureaucracy identified by the founder of sociology still persist. Also all subsequent paradigms of public administration operation, starting from the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, usually expressed in specific reforms initiated by politicians in various countries, have always had the same objective—to increase control over bureaucracy and limit its power. Also the transparency of bureaucratic operations has always been a key problem.

Bureaucracies, as rightly indicated by Weber, tend to evade the control from their bosses, to hide the true scale of their influences and to act in a non-transparent way. Moreover, the process can be very rapid (especially in the present times). Today, bureaucracies while for sure built by wise, trained people, without proper control quite easily transform from “learning” organisations into so specialised and hermetic entities that virtually nobody from the outside world is able to supervise them. And then, not only the risk of abuses to the detriment of their bosses or citizens, but also the risk of corruption immensely increases.

So ironically, it is the blind drive towards rationality, when accompanied by the lack of transparency and supervision, that leads to abandoning of the original purpose of every bureaucratic system. It is in this way that they become so prone to corruption. It is not by accident that the basic academic works on corruption in general deal with the bureaucratic corruption, and the majority of anticorruption policies start, for better or worse, from trying to fight the phenomenon exactly in public administration (Soreide and Rose-Ackerman 2015; Rose-Ackerman and Truex 2013; Grindle 2004; 525–548; Makowski 2006; 159–182).

Before going further, we should at least briefly define what corruption means for us. In view of numerous definitions of corruption and huge literature that has been written (especially starting from 1990s) on the subject, we do not intend to open a new discussion on what corruption means. We will refer to the concept combining some traditional notions on corruption with slightly more modern interpretations. For the purposes of the present analysis, we assume that corruption is a form of particularistic distribution of various goods—income, property, access to public procurements, etc. (Mungiu-Pippidi 2011; 11–13). The manifestations of particularism, or methods to limit access to various goods, vary. They can take the form of conventional bribes whereby some people attain privileged position in relation to others and can always get what they want by bribing the person who decides on the division of goods; or staging tender procedures that limits competition on the public services market; or manipulating the recruitment procedures for official jobs; or trading in official posts that in many countries was still normal in the nineteenth century; or hiding information that should be public. Lack of transparency might also be considered as a form of particularism (corruption).

A Short History of Hopeless Struggles with Bureaucratic Corruption

Taking a look at the problem of corruption in bureaucracies from historical perspective, we will confine ourselves to the modern times and present a brief analysis of feudal bureaucracies.

Early Modern Bureaucracies and Trade in Public Posts—Pure Corruption or Maybe an Anticorruption Recipe?

In those times, an “official post” as such meant something quite different than it means today—public service. Public officer, bureaucrat, was simply a servant of the monarch who acted according to the saying attributed to Louis XIV that “the state is me.” Public posts were seen as vested interests or simply possessions of particular persons, rather than a set of duties that have to be fulfilled for some impersonal state or its citizens (Mączak 1985; 211–244, Hintze 1970). For in those times, there was no clear-cut distinction between public and private spheres which forms the basis of all today bureaucracies, where public officers are only administrators of certain resources that belong to the community called the state.

Public offices were not only a kind of semiprivate property, but also a commodity. For example, Henry III, the king of France (and for a brief period also of Poland), and his successor, Henry IV, greatly multiplied public posts and sold them to the representatives of nobility. Paulette—the mechanism introduced in the beginning of the seventeenth century which remained in force with minor amendments till the end of acien regime was such a form of institutionalisation. As writes Antoni Mączak, under the system French royalty sold official posts for fixed prices and collected annual fees, as well as fees for selling the posts to third parties (one sixtieth of the nominal price of the post) (Mączak 1985; 230–232). Soon, around the system a whole market for trade in official posts developed, enabling the monarch to have (of course, limited, but anyway some) control over administrative apparatus and individual officers (Kamen 2000; 104). Charles Loyseau, a French lawyer living at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, famous for his descriptions of the life of contemporary France (and mainly for his work, Traité des ordres et simples dignités of 1610), mentioned that the post of counsel in the Paris Parliament cost in 1605 18,000 French pounds, while under Louis XIII the price reached 70,000 French pounds, and in 1660 in 14,000 French pounds. Only during a half of the sixteenth century, the French royalty sold 50 thousand official posts, trying to gather resources to cover its expenses.

So along with Weber, we could assume that such structures were totally non-rational or corrupted if compared with the ideal types of action defined by him (Weber 2002; 17–24). However, the mistake made by Weber and the authors of traditional accounts of corruption lies in the fact that as a point of reference they took contemporary ideas of universalistic principles governing the world. The feudal bureaucracies were in a sense rational. In the absence of management tools of the kind that we have today at our disposal (technical means, efficient political system, methods of management, control, auditing, etc.), they were effective management tools from the point of view of the king who strived to monopolise power. Before official posts became a commodity, they had been an asset bequeathed from generation to generation within individual families. Henry Kamen in his book on the life in the early modern Europe describes an astonishing, but typical for that period example of Joseph Ortiego, the secretary of the management board in a royal estate in Valencia, who still in 1696 sought to pass the post to his nephew, after it had been inherited within his family for 200 years (sic!). In most countries, the new system created opportunities for social advancement still not for all, but nevertheless for large (larger than before) groups of talented, and often well-educated people (e.g. from bourgeoisie).

Thus, the trade in public posts that flourished in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, however strangely it may sound, formed also an instrument to fight corruption (Klaveren 2007; 83–95). Many recognised social historians (e.g. Klaveren, Scott, Mączak, Braudel), when analysing the matter, are inclined to talk about proto-corruption rather than corruption, in order to limit the possible disputes on whether early modern bureaucracies were corrupted or not.

Civil Service—A Really Ideal Type of Modern Public Administration?

Another breakthrough in the fight with the problem of bureaucratic corruption was the development of the modern systems of civil service. Already mature nation-states, and in particular empires such as the Great Britain ruling over many colonies, tried to increase profits for metropolises and reduce both economic and political risks, and of course to harness corruption. The British had opportunities to watch Chinese mandarins in the beginning of the nineteenth century and started to experiment with the system of rigorous education for servicemen and development of special ethos for this group through education (Horton 2006). The acquired knowledge, competencies and values were supposed to form the main safeguard against the already-well-known deficiencies of bureaucracy.

The predecessor to the Western civil service was the administration system developed in the East India Company in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first step in the process was opening near London in 1806 a special school, East India Company College, with the task to educate employees for the company and organise relevant exams. The first exams for the “civil service” of the East India Company took place in 1829. Soon after, in 1853 William Gladstone decided to establish the imperial civil service based on the principles developed by the Company. The system was introduced quite quickly, for in 1854 the Civil Service Committee began its works, being a government body responsible mainly for supervising the adherence to the principles of open and competency-based recruitment of candidates for official posts in the British Empire. And only four years later, the imperial civil service replaced its predecessor in India (after the collapse of the Company in 1858).

The clearly beneficial effects of introducing bureaucratic apparatus recruited based on professional criteria and proper training of candidates for official posts were soon noticed in other countries. The next place where the British model of the civil service system was introduced were the USA, where in 1883 the so-called Pendleton Act was passed, almost fully abolishing the former practice of using political criteria in selecting candidates for the great majority of posts in the federal administration (the so-called spoils system), and introducing regulations and institutions to guarantee that the posts would be held by persons with appropriate knowledge and qualifications. So what was so special in the civil service systems?

Weber indicated several characteristics of democracies of this time that properly described the phenomenon, and even today to a great extent remain valid. They include first of all the supremacy of competencies and education of public officers. Second, the civil service, bureaucratic structures were supposed to operate according to precisely defined rules set forth in generally binding legal regulations. Third, the crucial principle of operations of the new bureaucracies was to be official hierarchy, i.e. fixed system of supremacy and subordination, being on the one hand an important tool for supervision and control, and on the other a guarantee for public officers that when any problems arise, they can trigger appropriate reaction within the bureaucratic structure. The hierarchy also defined the career path for public officers, so that they knew what rewards await them if they properly perform their duties. Fourth was the principle of documentation. All activities within the new bureaucracy should be written down, so that when needed, the actions of public officers could be always checked against the standards described in legal regulations. It is another important instrument of management and control of modern bureaucracies. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the job of modern public officer was to become from that time on a profession.

The civil service was undoubtedly a step forward in the development of bureaucracies, and it was not by accident that its introduction coincided with the development of parliamentary democracy, free market and notions such as the rule of law (Ferejohn and Pasquino 2003; p. 242, 261). The problem was that though bureaucracy based on meritocratic values, the idea of the rule of law and public service, and the parliamentary supervision, was for sure a more efficient means of preventing administrative corruption than the trade in official posts, it was still a imperfect system. The system of education of public officers was defective. It was hard to maintain civil service ethos and discipline in the highly hierarchical, depersonalised structures. An extreme example of corrupted bureaucracy, as envisaged by Weber, proved to be the German administration. All its dysfunctions became apparent in the period of the Third Reich when it proved to be a structure that was not only thoroughly corrupted, but at the same time heartless and able to execute automatically even the most inhuman orders from its political bosses (Grunberger 1987; 192–202; Mann 2000). Even worse, analyses led after the war by, e.g. Robert Merton or Philip Zimbardo showed that the problems of Nazi bureaucracy can easily occur in any other similar structures.

So soon it became obvious that the nineteenth century idea of control and supervision over bureaucratic structures only through high initial requirements of competencies for candidates for official posts, developing and cultivating official ethos and creating a network of legal requirements and political control, was in fact better than all previous solutions, but still insufficient (Huntington 2007). Moreover, it seemed that all the mechanisms failed to solve the key (at least from our perspective) problem of the lack of transparency in bureaucratic operations, and ironically—if the new control means were not implemented effectively—could even intensify it.

Bureaucracies have the ability to transform the means intended for their supervision into another layer of professional knowledge or even professional secret. To illustrate the problem, it is worth to cite observations of an Australian sociologist, Adam Jamrozik, who analysing the issue of constructing social problems, or phenomena that remain one of the main objects of interest for all bureaucracies, described a category of entities ironically called by him helping professions (Jamrozik and Nocella 1998; 73–77). These are various agencies, usually included in a broadly defined public administration, that as a result of political decisions are delegated with the tasks to deal with specific issues (social problems). For example, such agencies include social assistance centres helping unemployed, poor or homeless persons, or law enforcement agencies having the task to counteract and fight crime. By political decisions, such entities are equipped with more or less standard instruments to deal with a given issue. They have at their disposal appropriate laws, trained, specialised teams of workers (professional public officers) and various technical means (budgets, buildings, cars, etc.), in short, all they need to operate professionally and effectively. The problem is, as noticed by Jamrozik, that such agencies that in principle should help the society and the state in solving social problems or managing current matters, can easily transform into entities that in fact fail to solve the problems, and can even intensify them, and at the best only maintain them in controllable scale that is convenient for them. For if they solved the given problem, they would lose their raison d’être. Hence the term helping professions—for they help themselves rather than the state or the society.

New Public Management—Can Public Bureaucracies in Fact Learn so Much from Private Bureaucracies?

Another turning point in the development of bureaucratic structures and thinking about how to protect them from the risk of corruption was the paradigm of new public management (NPM), introduced in the 1970s (Hood 1991; Gruening 2001; Ostrom and Ostrom 1971). Of course, the process was enhanced not only by the intention to counteract corruption, but also by many other factors, mainly the growth of neoliberal thinking connected with a general loss of confidence in centres of power, leading to focusing more on private sector seen as more effective and as a source of models for other spheres of social life, including the public sector.

Contrary to Weber’s who saw no special qualitative differences between private and public bureaucracies, it was assumed that “management mechanisms used in the private sector can also be implemented in the public sector” (Klages and Löffler 1998; 42). Another NPM idea was focusing on financial effectiveness and aim-oriented management (even at the cost of less restrictive abiding by legal regulations, seen in the Weberian model as a sacrosanct requirement). Still another idea was to assume the perspective of consumers, or seeing the activities of public administration agencies in terms of goods and services offered to citizens similar to goods offered to consumers on the market (Hood 1991). And finally, a considerable change, also from the point of view of our analysis, was introduced in the vision of public administration.

In the traditional Weberian model, bureaucracy took the role of a power centre in its dealings with citizens, while NPM rather prescribed using the philosophy “customer is king” and taking the servient role not only in relation to their political bosses, but also, and maybe above all to citizens, especially in democracies. In practice, it led for example to the strengthening of the right of access to public information, the key solution helping to break the monopoly of bureaucratic knowledge and to broaden the scope of control over it, according to the thinking that if customer is our king he or she should know a lot about us. In addition to opening bureaucratic structures, NPM also stressed the development of techniques to monitor and evaluate the results of operations of public institutions (Gratto et al. 2002; Stubbs 2011; Berliner 2014).

In Weberian bureaucracy, the ethos had, so to speak, a ritual dimension, while under NPM it became significantly instrumentalised, to the extent that in the vocabulary of administration managers the term “ethical management” was incorporated. It means complex analytical systems and indicators for particular posts in public administration related to various types of risks, including in particular the risk of corruption, and systematic education and information activities directed to public officers, including systems for protecting whistleblowers (which started to really flourish already in post-NPM era) (McCourt 2005; 227–242). Another term that was popularised under NPM is accountability, or responsibility of public institutions for their actions—first in the narrow, traditional sense, but in time also in a broader, social meaning—as responsibility before citizens.

The paradigm of NPM, like the two previously discussed turning points in the evolution process of bureaucratic structures, was a step forward, and like before soon aroused criticisms. Those most sceptical simply argued that the whole concept was a fake, because it failed in any way to solve the old problems of bureaucracies (Hood 1991), and to some extent they could be right, for it seems that, for example, the inclination to corruption on the part of public officers within the institutions transformed under NPM model is not drastically lower than in the old Weberian model. But the main objections to NPM concerned the fact that the model failed to fulfil its key promise, i.e. that spending on administration (still growing) would increase the effectiveness of its operations. This objection was probably the hardest for the proponents of NPM, because it seemed to be corroborated by numerous empirical data (Atreya and Armstrong 2002).

From our perspective, the gravest criticism of NPM said that the new model, ironically, even intensified the above-mentioned problem of helping professions, and even more, became a vehicle for a new form of particularism exercised by the new bureaucratic elites—so-called public administration managers (Makowski et al. 2014; 89–114). And finally, the criticisms of the NPM model go straight to its core idea and question the assumption that public bureaucracies are in fact so indebted to their counterparts in the private sector. Economic crises of the late 1990s and the big financial crisis of 2008 showed beyond all doubt that private bureaucracies are not so much better as to serve as an example to anyone. Like public administration, they are susceptible to all forms of corruption and abuses.

Anyway, NPM had at least one important merit—it switched thinking about bureaucracy and control over bureaucratic structures very much towards citizens. It supported development of idea of access to information what is crucial to the key problem of this analysis.

Open Government and ICT in the Service—Postmodern Tools of Combating Administrative Corruption

In this way, we reach the main topic of our discussion, for today the leading idea in public administration organisation is the very slogan of open government. In contrast to NPM, the idea has no technocratic background (though to some extent both concepts are linked together) ( Academic arguments for this approach are rather derivative to the changes in public administration initiated by the idea, while at the same time the idea of open government, in principle, is not new nor has any special, canonical form (Harlan and Robinson 2012). In short, it consists in a set of detailed recommendations to make available to citizens all information on the activities of public entities and to include them possibly directly in decision-making processes. In more advanced versions, open government means participatory model of taking public decisions, where both public officers and their political superiors loose the monopoly for deciding and share their power and responsibility with the stakeholders, or more generally with citizens [particular example of implementation of the idea are so-called participatory budgets (Canning 2014), more and more popular on the local level, or deliberative surveys (].

In practice, the concept of open government remains quite diffuse and multidimensional. In part, it is quite abstract, but more and more often it takes the form of very specific solutions, as in the above-mentioned examples, or even big government or international programmes implemented with a great momentum. For example, the European Union has for years financed heavily implementation and promotion of solutions that enable citizens to participate in public decision-making processes both on the local and central levels ( ). The financial perspective only for the years 2007–2013 includes considerable resources (over 8 billion Euros) for development and practical implementation of the concept of Community-Led Local Development. A special political emanation of the idea of the open government is the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative launched by President Barack Obama and several other country leaders in 2009 by the United Nations Organisation.

But for us, the most important aspect of the open government idea is the fact that it contains a strong anticorruption element, because quite naturally it is focused on the main problem and source of bureaucratic corruption, so well described by Max Weber almost a century ago—the lack of transparency in government operations, and in particular within its administrative structures. As a result, many specific tools have been developed for preventing and combating this particular form of corruption. In this paper, we will discuss several examples of such solutions and try to answer the question to what extent such solutions can really strengthen the potential to counteract corruption.

Open Government and E-Government

One of the main elements of the model of the open government is broader opening of public administration to citizens. There are many ways of the opening, but what they have in common is broader use of information technologies, and one of the main of its forms is the idea of e-government. In short, it consists in using electronic communication methods for performing the tasks of public authorities (including in particular public administration), and in particular for analysing premises of decisions, exchange of information and internal and external communication (Coursey and Norris 2008).

The aim of open government, e-government anticorruption tools is to make the operations of bureaucratic structures more efficient, enhance accessibility of services provided by them and increase their economic effectiveness. The e-government has mainly technical dimension, and in principle introduces no changes in bureaucratic structures as such, but the concept could not have spread if the market perspective embedded in the NPM model of public administration was not adopted (Prakash and Singh 2008). For in this model, like in NPM, activities of public administration are seen in terms of goods and services produced to meet the needs of particular customers or consumers, in particular citizens. In this way of thinking, all tools that enhance the quality, the speed and the cost-effectiveness of the “bureaucratic system of provision of services” should be used in public administration.

In principle, e-government has several functions. It makes citizens, political superiors and other groups of recipients of its services more satisfied. It reduces the costs of administrative operations (solutions such as electronic system for circulation of documents, less need for personal meetings, travels, etc., speedier flow of information and actions, reducing costs) (Bekkers and Korteland 2005). It supports the development of bureaucratic organisations by encouraging public officers to improve their qualifications and knowledge. Most importantly from our perspective, it aims at increasing the general quality of the governance, strengthening the legitimisation of public institutions, enhancing confidence in them and above all creating opportunities to improve transparency of their activities, and thus strengthening the ability to prevent and fight corruption.

In addition to the fact that opening the resources and proactively making them available to citizens on the Internet as such makes the activities of bureaucratic structures much more transparent and gives an additional stimulus for economic growth, more importantly for us, new forms of control are enhanced over the public administration operations. And in a while, we will discuss examples of such innovations.

Is E-Government Really Helpful in Limiting Bureaucratic Corruption? A Short Review of the Results of International Comparative Research

Already in the 1990s, efforts were undertaken to evaluate whether information technologies enhance the capabilities to combat administrative corruption. Most of the research were case studies and quantitative analyses based on the global indicators of the quality of government, corruption perceptions, growth of new technologies, access to the Internet or ways it was used. All those approaches had their natural limitations, but they let us at least generally assess whether ICT are or are not the perfect means to crush administrative corruption.

Most international research offers arguments for the proposition that ICT have positive effects on abilities to limit corruption, but on certain conditions. As already mentioned, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi argues that in general almost any kind of ICTs has positive effect on an ability to control corruption. In her paper from 2013 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Controlling Corruption in the European Union she provides interesting set of correlations showing that there is quite strong relation between the World Bank’s indicator of “control of corruption” and indicators of availability basic public services online, per cent of population using e-government services or even general per cent of internet users in population (Mungiu-Pippidi 2013). Also other researchers report similar, positive results (See: Plascencia 2015; Chandan and Sarangi 2014). However, these promising findings should be read with some restraint.

The study from 2011 led by three Taiwanese researchers, Mon-Chi Lio, Meng-Chun Liu and Yi-Pey Ou, based on several global indicators used to evaluate the scale of corruption threats and data from the International Telecommunication Union (for the years 1998–2005) showed that the Internet can help to fight corruption through enhancement of the transparency of operations of government agencies, including in particular public administration. It can also increase the transparency of their activities and reduce to some extent arbitrariness of their decisions. And if at the same time it helps citizens to develop and use new forms of social control over public institution operations, then it also increases responsibility and accountability of public officers. The Internet, when properly used, can also help to reduce the scale of perceived corruption which often reflects the lack of familiarity with the operations of public institutions and related lack of confidence in them, rather than real abuses committed by public officers (Miller et al. 2001). However, as shown by the research of the Taiwanese authors, the positive effects of ICT are not decisive in whether public administration is more or less susceptible to corruption. They can also be visible only when in a given country some minimum conditions for using the instrument exist—such as respecting some basic principles of democracy, ability of the government to recognise crises and political will to implement reforms. In short, the new information technologies can work only when they are embedded in favourable, democratic environment and are supported by a real drive to implement reforms on the part of the decision-makers.

Similar conclusions were reached by Martha Gracia-Murillo. In her article of 2013, based on the good government indicators, the already-mentioned Telecommunications Infrastructure Index and Web measure index, she showed that beyond any doubt, at least in relation to government (central) administration, greater availability of various information and services provided by public institutions through the Internet translates into more positive perception of corruption measured by the indicators of the World Bank and the popular Corruption Perception Index of the Transparency International (Garcia-Murillo 2013). Gracia-Murillo led many thoughtful statistical analyses concerning 187 countries, based on data from the years 2002–2008. As an example supporting the general diagnosis based on global indicators, she cites the reform of public procurement system in Chile (Chile Compra) from the beginning of the twenty-first century. The Transparency International Chile thoroughly evaluated the system in 2007, taking into account data on its functioning from the years 2004–2006 and opinions from its users. The survey led by TI-Chile showed that public contracts covered by the system were seen as less susceptible to corruption. In fact, it was found out that 39% of detected abuses in public procurements concerned institutions not covered by the system Chile Compra, and only 9% of institutions that used the system had problems with corruption. Gracia-Murillo argues, based on her analyses and known case studies on implementing e-tools in Chile, India and Peru, that they not only help to prevent corruption, but also enhance the quality of public services.

In relatively recent (as compared to the time when this paper is written) analyses, two Rumanian researchers, Dan Lupu and Corina Georgiana Lazar, based on synthetic indexes Corruption Perception of Transparency International, E-government Index, Control of Corruption Indicator and Government Effectiveness (World Bank indicators), showed that in the new member states of the European Union, formerly belonging to the Soviet bloc, and thus having definitely higher level of risks of corruption (as a result of weaker state structures, ineffective law enforcement agencies, etc.), introducing e-administration solutions had a significant positive impact on the abilities to limit corruption. The development of e-administration in the old EU member states had weaker impact on the abilities to counteract corruption, but it was still significant on the level of correlations, which can be explained, for example, by the fact that the general quality of public administration operation in the Western countries is higher, so the effects of e-government are not so visible in the existing context.

The results of the Rumanian researchers again show that telecommunication and information solutions introduced in public administration as such are not enough to guarantee that corruption will be limited, the quality of public office operations will be enhanced or they will be more positively perceived. As indicated by Taiwanese researchers, the context is also important—the cultural environment, political will of decision-makers, the willingness to implement reforms, and specifically, to use e-tools to limit abuses in administrative structures. Moreover, as shown by Gracia-Murillo, overinvestment in electronic tools in public administration can bring effects that are opposite to what is expected of them. Inflow of resources for digitisation of public offices, even under a campaign of limiting corruption, can arouse temptations among public officers and politicians themselves to use the money for purposes other than intended. Examples of such corruption can be found in many countries, e.g. in Poland (up to time when this text was finalised, the biggest corruption scandal ever that happened in Poland, in terms of money involved, was related to tenders for e-governance projects, and was named Info-afera, what could be translated into English as Info-Gate). They show that the investments in e-administration themselves require supervision and protection from corruption.

To sum up what has been said so far, it can be noted that in the field of counteracting corruption in public administration, the available meta-analyses indicate the following main aspects (of course not only, but for sure one of most crucial) of using ICT tools for limiting administrative corruption:
  1. 1.

    Transparency. Information and communication technologies, together with the development of legal regulations granting access to public information, more than ever before motivate bureaucratic structures to proactively disclose information on their ongoing activities and their gathered knowledge (reports, documents, expert opinions, source data, etc.). It leads to breaking the monopoly of bureaucratic structures for their internal professional knowledge.

  2. 2.

    Better organisation of public office operations. E-tools in public administration, such as electronic circulation of documents, Internet pages, e-service portals, make the work of public officers more efficient, simplify contacts with citizens, automatise decisions, and make control and supervision easier within the institutions. In this way, they contribute to limiting discretionary decisions and shorten the time of decision-making processes, thus reducing temptations and opportunities to manipulate the process on the part of both public offices and their clients (Coursey and Norris 2008).

  3. 3.

    Participation. Last but not least, information and communication technologies not only open the bureaucratic structures for citizens, but also enable citizens to actively participate in decision-making processes. Using the resources of the administration, they can develop their own tools to control them, are able to react more quickly and competently to abuses, and, as it were, impose positive changes in the operations of the structures. It is not by accident that the majority of watchdog initiatives that have been developing dynamically from the 1990s focus exactly on the control over public administration.


For each of the aspects, many examples of particular solutions can be found. Of course, in the present paper we are not able to present even a sectional view or a sample of the multitude of solutions already functioning all over the world. So we will focus on individual, selected cases that can show both the advantages and the limitations of the mechanisms introduced within open government in order to better control corruption.

Open Data—Higher Transparency and Better Organisation of Work in Public Administration

Higher transparency and better organisation of work in public administration can be achieved using ICT and proactively supplying citizens with as much information as possible. In a basic sense, it means a broad access to information for citizens, but also within bureaucratic structures and among those who have political supervision over them, without any unnecessary limitations. Thus, in practice all these actors should not only have the right to access information, but also should be able to use the right in a possibly easy and simple way—immediately, through web pages, without any applications, asking, declarations, etc. Secondly, which is specifically related to the use of ICT, the data should be made available in a manner that makes their reading, processing and analysing possibly easy (a comprehensive description of open data standard can be found at, see also Izdebski 2015), and this aspect is particularly important for counteracting corruption. So the key requirement is to use the so-called open data formats.

For example, in Poland since 2001 a broad system of publication of data on the functioning of public agencies has been in place, concerning in particular central and local government administration—the Bulletin of Public Information. A lot of information that can be obtained from the system includes financial disclosures filed by several hundred thousand public officers, mostly of municipal level. Analysis of the data or their simple reviewing by interested journalists and citizens often forms a basis for detecting grave abuses in public institution operations. But the problem is that in the Polish system, the disclosures are presented in the form of PDF files or even scans of handwritten, paper documents. So the set of financial disclosures cannot be used both by citizens and even by control agencies (that would be willing to analyse them quickly as to the risk of irregularities) so effectively to limit corruption as it could have been if the financial disclosures were presented in the form of text files or in other formats, such as XML, that are easy to search and aggregate (Makowski 2014).

The problem illustrated by the example of the Polish system for publishing financial disclosures of public officers is relatively common and concerns all kinds of documents that should be made public by administration, such as drafts of legal acts (accompanied by documentation from the legislative process), financial reports, contracts and agreements, registers of benefits, registers of official expenses, etc. The core source of the problem is the fact that even if public administration institutions have their Internet pages where many information on their activities are published, which should of course be seen as absolutely positive development, then from the perspective of promoting transparency and limiting administrative corruption, the process is less effective when the information are disclosed in a manner that makes it hard to use the resources in order to prevent or detect abuses. Using in particular the open data formats and API (Application Programming Interface) protocols makes it easier for the administration themselves and the citizens to get access to information on public offices operations, to search for data and to use them for analytical activities concerning also corruption risks. This is a basic step towards full use of ICT for enhancing transparency and better functioning of public administration, of course in addition to the never-changing call for broadening the catalogue of information that should be made public by public offices. Naturally, the instruments should be properly regulated by law.

Then, further steps can be considered—such as introducing an electronic circulation of documents in public offices, designing special Internet pages or tools that enable interested persons to analyse data by themselves, synchronising—to facilitate simultaneous analysis—of various sets of data (for example, registers of businesses and sets of information on financial disclosures, which could help, e.g. in identifying conflicts of interest or the practice of the so-called revolving door whereby public officers transfer to private sector and back to public administration—factors that always foster or accompany particular cases of administrative corruption).

It should also be remembered that even the most sophisticated set of ICT instruments will not by itself result in limiting administrative corruption. Public administration, control agencies or citizens have to be willing and able to use the tools, and that requires information and education activities. And of course, we must be aware that availability and accessibility of data definitely have potential as an anticorruption tool (Lindstedt and Naurin 2010), but also creates other problems or dilemmas. Just to mention national security and political sensitivity issues of data, intellectual property, trade secrets or the big question of transparency vs. privacy. In particular, this second problem is interesting from the point of view of corruption prevention within the bureaucratic and political structures. Namely the question is, how much data on public servants and their actions should be available to the public in them name of transparency and accountability, and not to interfere their right to privacy. Until now, at least in Europe, it seems that in this respect a prevailing opinion is that any public activity of a persons, such as a public officials or anyone dealing with public funds is an valid argument of limiting the privacy of such persons, just to mention cases of the European Court of Human Rights jurisdiction such as Lingens versus Austria (1986), Oberschlick versus Austria (1991), Thorgierson versus Iceland (1992) or Google versus Gonzales (2014). However, discussing it would require writing another text with more legal approach.

Anyway, an OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) initiative can be cited here—the Open Data Project. As the main incentive for the initiative, the OECD indicates the very need for greater transparency and accountability of public authorities ( including in particular administrative structures which produce huge amounts of information on themselves and on the matters they deal with. One of the tools used by OECD to encourage states to open their data, also in the name of combating administrative corruption, is OURData Index created to evaluate the progress of the member states of the organisation in opening their public data (OECD, 2015).

The first edition of OURData Index of 2015 indicated South Korea as the most advanced country in opening public data. The main reason for choosing South Korea was the fact that the country had invested in a comprehensive programme to develop e-government—Government 3.0 ( The promotional slogan of the policy, Better Governance—Happier Citizens, is a good illustration of a positive attitude towards and determination of the Korean government to use e-tools for improving the quality of public administration operations. As an example of activities implemented under the programme, the UNI-PASS can be cited—the system for electronic customs procedures. It is based on the integrated circulation of documents and managing customs procedures concerning goods, persons and financial transactions going through South Korea. The system made official procedures more transparent and efficient (for example, the average time of customs procedure for exporting goods was reduced from 24 h to 1.5 min, and for imports from two days to 1.5 h and the average time for payment inspections from four days to 10 min) (Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs 2013), significantly reduced the costs of functioning of customs services and limited the risk of corruption in this important area managed by the state (in 2003, the system was awarded the prize of the international organisation Anti-Corruption Agency Forum gathering the countries from Asia and Pacific region, and in 2011 the prize from the World Knowledge Forum). Similar systems, based on the Korean model, were introduced, e.g. in Kazakhstan, Guatemala or Tanzania.

Big Data and Citizens Controlling Public Administration Expenditures. Examples of Initiatives Concerning Public Procurements

Open government and e-government creates interesting opportunities to include citizens in direct control and supervision over public administration. Big data, or the access to and the availability of all source data on the public sector in general, and on the activities of public administration in particular, is of key importance in the process. Public administration has in their disposal huge amounts of information from different fields—on their own operations (e.g. data on employment, salaries, personnel changes, spending, financial disclosures, etc. in public offices), on the society (e.g. data from general censuses), on the economy (e.g. macroeconomic data), registers (e.g. of legal persons, businesses, non-governmental organisations, on the functioning of public procurement market), official statistical data (e.g. data on crime or information on law enforcement agencies). The resources can be used by citizens in creative ways, as shown by examples from countries with free access to such data. Based on them, mobile applications are created (e.g. helping to localise places in the public transport network) and small enterprises and bigger businesses are launched specialising in processing and redistributing public data (e.g. companies supplying analytical tools enabling their users to perform surveys of the area of pieces of land or buildings). In the same way, ICT tools are developed to detect and prevent corruption.

An excellent example of such anticorruption solutions developed by creative citizens who are allowed to use the knowledge gathered by administration are various tools aggregating scattered information on operations of public administration and allowing for identifying corruption risks and undertaking particular activities to counteract or neutralise them. In the recent years before this text was written, a special interest has started to be raised by the field of public procurement. Contracting services and different types of procurements form a very important area of activities of today bureaucratic structures and their agents such as public-owned companies. In most (in particular democratic) countries, public administration (of central and local government level) directly or indirectly (through controlled entities, companies, non-governmental organisations, etc.) redistributes huge amounts of money, either making purchases to meet their own needs or supporting implementation of their tasks concerning mainly meeting the needs of citizens—e.g. investing in road infrastructure, environmental protection or public services (for example, healthcare, public transport or education).

Worldwide market for public services is really huge. Only in OECD countries it is estimated at average of 13% GDP (OECD, 2013). The value of the European market for public procurements in 2011 was estimated at 2.4 trillion Euros (Cernat and Kutlina-Dimitrova 2015). The high values of contracts (especially for infrastructural investments) and direct contact between the public and private sectors which operate according to different principles (the priority of the former is, or at least should be, obtaining products and services for citizens of possibly best quality for possibly cheapest price, while for the latter—maximum profits and expansion) are natural factors increasing the temptation for abuses—bribery, staging tender procedures, collusions, etc. All the factors are conducive to higher risk of corruption in the sense that we adopted—as a form of particularism. That is why it is this area of public administration activities that is prioritised by international institutions (such as the World Bank, the OECD or the European Union) in connection with combating corruption (The World Bank 2016). So more and more countries introduce various anticorruption initiatives. Most of them have preventive nature and are based exactly on solutions from within the e-government model.

Probably the biggest progress in this field has been achieved in the European Union. Every year in the European Union hundreds of billions of euro are redistributed under the so-called cohesion funds and through the public procurement market. Therefore, European Commission for develops technologies and invests in special projects aimed at using the ICT tools to fight corruption in the area of public procurements (to mention only DAISY or PLUTO systems) (Wensink et al. 2013). One of the most complex and the newest instruments of this type (when this text is written, still functioning in a prototype version) is the ARACHNE system, developed specially to prevent corruption in the biggest European funds, the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. ARACHNE is an aggregate of databases on projects financed from the above-mentioned funds, information on entities commissioning tasks, proceedings, irregularities detected by the Commission and also external bases (ORBIS and World Compliance) containing detailed information on companies from all over the world. Public officers of the Commission and member states have access to the system. Its main purpose is prevention, and it is based on the concept of the so-called red flags. When a tender procedure is started, the ordering party can check contractors on an ongoing basis—examine their history, past experiences in implementing tasks financed from European funds, reports from external institutions on observing legal regulations and management standards, connections with other companies, persons, political parties, organisations (which is useful in investigating, e.g. price collusions), etc. The analysis is performed by the system automatically by associating data from different sources. Person or persons conducting tender procedure can receive detailed reports on every entity, together with enumerated risk factors, and thus they can react properly still during the tender procedure, e.g. by cancelling the tender or requesting explanations from contractors.

The citizens themselves proved to be very interested in using the data to control expenditures of public administrations. In the period of two or three years before this text is written, in several EU countries (such as Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland) civil initiatives have been launched focusing on using data from the public procurement market for controlling public administration. A particularly interesting example of such initiatives forms the Croatian portal Integrity Observers ( It was created by the local non-governmental organisation Partnership for Social Development. The portal is an Internet database that is updated in real time, which enables any interested person to analyse on an ongoing basis announcements on tenders posted on the Internet pages of central or local government institutions. The users of the tool can search for procurements that, e.g. have extremely short deadlines for submitting offers, high tender guarantees or small number of bidders. In this way, individual ordering parties and bidders can be watched, their behaviour on the procurement market can be analysed and entities engaging in risky practices can be picked. The Croatian database is additionally used in other activities of the organisation, which conducts a programme of investigative journalism based on data (, under which local journalists examine how public funds are spent by central and local government authorities, and if needed, alarm the general public. Thus in Croatia, based on information on the public procurement market, a whole anticorruption social mini-movement developed for transparency and integrity, to a great extent focused on public administration.

Initiatives similar to the Croatian one were also launched in other European countries. In Hungary, a portal like the Croatian one was created (, to analyse announcements on public procurements, by two non-governmental organisations: Transparency International Hungary and K-Monitor. Portals having similar functions are also present in Slovakia ( In Poland, as a result of cooperation between the Stefan Batory Foundation ( and the private company Zamówienia 2.0 (, in 2017 a portal to analyse in real time the risk of abuses for particular procurements will be launched using specially designed statistical tool and data obtained from the national bulletin of public procurement. Also global civil platforms exist to integrate and exchange experiences between different organisations and entities active for greater transparency in public procurements, such as the global initiative the Open Contracting Partnership ( or the Eastern European TransparenCEE (

The European Commission sees the potential of the local initiatives and sometimes supports them directly, having in mind that they are also conducive to protection of the interests of the community. They induce national (central and local government) administrations to greater care in spending public money, and thus have preventive role. A good example of such initiative supported by the European Union is the project DigiWhist ( implemented by a consortium of academic centres and non-governmental organisations in all member states of the EU and selected countries from outside the Union. Under the project, a common indicator (index) of the risk of abuses in public procurements is developed that should help in identifying threats and performing analyses (including international comparisons). It will also be accompanied by tools enabling citizens in each country to identify risks and conduct watchdog activities by themselves (e.g. in municipalities). In addition, the DigiWhist (in line with its full name—Digital Whistleblower) will be equipped with instruments helping whistleblowing activities in cases of abuses and cooperation with media and law enforcement agencies.

From Weber to Web… Conclusions

The first part of this paper contained a short historical overview of the main developments in the methods of organising bureaucratic structures, aimed also at overcoming their vulnerability to corruption seen as a form of particularism which, in the activities of all bureaucracies, is manifested in discretionary nature of decisions and selective distribution of resources remaining at the disposal of public officers—the access to the bureaucracies themselves or the access to public services administered by them in the name and under direction of their superiors—rulers, politicians or citizens.

The characteristic feature of those historical efforts to harness bureaucratic corruption seems to be first of all the fact that they were usually initiated by the direct superiors of the bureaucracies—the absolutist rulers, and with the progress of democratisation, the elected politicians. The second characteristic was the fact that they were focused mainly on the administration itself. For ages, the main source of the problem was persistently searched for within the administration itself and it was mainly the administration that remained the object of proposed changes—from within. Alternatively, efforts were undertaken to create new forms of purely political control and supervision over administration. These efforts had not been totally futile. The late feudal bureaucracy, based on the system of the trade in official posts, though far from the modern ideal, was undoubtedly better (in terms of the burden of corruption) than its predecessors, based almost entirely on the discretion of rulers and family or clan connections. The civil service systems being introduced from the nineteenth century formed another step forward, as well as the NPM model, transferring to public administration good (but also bad) practices from private bureaucracies. But none of the historical reforms of bureaucracy brought so powerful challenge for the key reason of administrative corruption—the lack of transparency—as the concept of open government. The paradigm has developed dynamically from the late 1990s mainly as a result of its happy marriage with equally rapid progress in the ICT sector. The call for granting citizens an open access to information on the activities of authorities, and in particular the closest to them authority exercised by public officers, together with new technologies opening unprecedented opportunities to disseminate the information, gave rise also to quite new methods for limiting the ancient problem of administrative corruption.

Of course, the new technologies are also used by the administration itself to develop new management tools and exercise internal control. But from our perspective, the most important development is the fact that ICT and the opening of public data resources break the monopoly of bureaucracies for information on themselves and for the knowledge gathered by bureaucracies, as well as the monopoly of politicians for exercising supervision over bureaucracies. The solutions under Big Data and Open Data concepts, impossible without the help of the new technologies, enable citizens to become at least to some extent experts on public administration and the areas of its concern as the public officers themselves.

If they only wish so, citizens can associate, or support watchdog or think tank organisations and groups in gathering the data, analyse them, use them to develop tools to prevent and counteract corruption (Internet portals, applications for smart phones, software, etc.). Such a movement probably never will be massive. However, already the difference is visible. As Croatian, Polish or US examples show, there are numerous civic organisations engaging people via ICT in monitoring and oversighting public administration (Vila 2013). Maybe we will never have in this area something as SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) or PlanetHunters in astronomy—really grass-root, participatory projects driven by new technologies. However, use of ICT tools to counteract and prevent corruption by citizens is already global, what is proved by such initiatives as DigiWhist or OpenContracting. And let us hope it will be more popular in the future.

As put by Sir Francis Bacon, scientia potentia est (knowledge is power). Equipped with the access to knowledge, citizens or political supervisors of bureaucratic structures gain, maybe diffused, but nevertheless the greatest power to induce the bureaucratic structures to act rightly, lawfuly and effectively. They can also induce decision-makers to introduce reforms of public administration. And although so far, as shown by the research cited earlier in this paper, the correlation between the growth of ICT and the capabilities to limit administrative corruption still remain not too strong and depend on many cultural and political factors, it is nevertheless detectable both by researchers and by citizens of many countries in their everyday life experience. And the growing numbers of local initiatives enabling citizens to control bureaucracies should form a sufficient basis for a strongly supported thesis that in the future the use of the very solutions to a great extent will let us limit the problem of corruption in this area of public life. Let us give ICT and open government a chance.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Collegium Civitas / Stefan Batory FoundationWarsawPoland

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