November 1, 2009  

Cleaning up corruption

The international community has striven to reduce corruption through encouraging development of robust autonomous auditing agencies, increasing the pay of public sector officials, and enhancing the criminal justice system — however, this is not completed overnight.

That corruption constitutes a significant constraint on state-building efforts in post-conflict situations is well known. Corruption is a friction generator, hindering activities in all domains of activity. In the economic domain, for example, corruption acts like a tax, strangling efforts to create the economic growth essential for effective post-conflict reconstruction.

Although much progress has been made in Afghanistan, the daily experience of petty corruption and a belief that corruption among the major political actors will prevent meaningful change or progress in the political domain reduces incentives for people to take the risk necessary to support the nascent security and governmental administration structures. Indeed, this corruption threatens to undermine all international community efforts to enhance Afghanistan government capabilities.

This situation gives rise to an important question for military actors involved in Afghanistan and other complex operations: Must the military, whose responsibility extends only to improving security in the country, stand by as corruption washes away much of the progress made? The answer is no. Military actors can provide indirect assistance in combating corruption efforts by applying military expertise in organizational design to quickly train and equip large numbers of people to serve as anti-corruption monitoring groups or clean teams. These clean teams would consist of uniformed personnel recording interactions between citizens and government officials (politicians, police, customs officials and land registry agents), using commercial off-the-shelf recording devices such as hand-held video recorders, cell phones and webcams. The clean team recordings would serve two purposes. One, they will provide a disincentive to corrupt action on the part of officials. Two, and no less importantly, they will provide civil servants with protection against fraudulent accusations of corrupt behavior, thus encouraging respect for the rule of law.

I will first discuss clean team operations and why they will be effective in reducing corruption. Second, I’ll briefly argue for the Joint Force, including the military, to support the establishment of clean teams in post-conflict situations. Third, I’ll discuss the administrative aspects of the clean team establishment and operation, followed by a discussion of other advantages that will result from clean team activities.


Modern consumer electronics, like video recorders, cell phones, web cameras and video broadcast systems, make recording and displaying interactions between government officials and citizens easier than ever before. Clean team activity consists of using these technologies to record citizen/government interactions. This recording will provide an incentive for the government officials not to abuse their power by, for example, extorting bribes from citizens. The clean team member is thus a combination government ombudsman and witness, providing an incentive to behave decently and in accordance with the law.

Why think that the clean team recordings will motivate corrupt officials to modify their behavior? The clean team activities speak directly to the operation of what economist and social scientist Mancur Olson refers to as “selective incentives” operative within the community. Selective incentives can be positive or negative, and are intended as “inducements offered to those who act in the group interest.” Selective incentives are necessary because appeals to the collective good are insufficient to shape decision-making and thus behavior. The clean team’s presence will act as selective incentive, the effectiveness of which is derived, not from a willingness to follow the law because it is the law, but to follow the rules because failing to do so causes the corrupt actors to appear dishonorable in the eyes of their peers. It may be possible to rationalize corrupt behavior with a wink and nod when everyone is taking “sweets” — doing so in clear view of one’s peers and family is less appealing.


The Joint Force, including the military, should be involved in establishing the clean team for three main reasons. The first and most important is that the military has tremendous expertise in the rapid training and equipping of large numbers of people. Why is this important? Because the success of the clean team requires massing forces at the decisive points — a clean team of a hundred people is too small to retain its integrity in the face of established corruption networks or be effective in serving as a witness to citizen/state interactions. The clean team requires membership in the thousands to be effective. Thus, clean team establishment is more like training and deploying an army than developing a civil service or training a police force.

In establishing the clean team, the military will act like a venture capital firm, providing the organizational structure, making the contacts with other players, pulling the players together and then turning the operation over to its owner, the local government. The return on investment will manifest as enhanced local self-governance capability.

What form would military involvement take in establishing the clean team? The CONUS Replacement Center at Fort Benning, Ga., can serve as a model for clean team establishment.


Fifty-one weeks a year, the CRC provides pre-deployment training, including medical screening, financial system verification and enrollment, gear issue and weapons qualification for approximately 400 people. Whereas the military in the CONUS Replacement Center brings together the Defense Financial Accounting Service, medical services, the Central Issuing Facility and others, the clean team organizing body will gather the services of local banks or microcredit organizations, temporary employment agencies and cell phone companies to provide the administration and operational support the clean team requires.

The pay system will not be cash-based. Instead, by operating through approved microcredit organizations or banks, the clean team members will gain access to the financial services necessary to turn their pay into useful capital. The financial services organizations will manage the pay and clean team roster— if you are getting paid, you are on the roster. This dual function will reduce the coordination costs associated with ensuring that the people getting paid are employees of good standing.

Companies accustomed to managing large numbers of employees with dynamic schedules and work locations, like temporary employment agencies, will handle the day-to-day assignment process and hours worked record-keeping. The video will provide the record of hours worked. Spot checks can be done centrally to ensure the staffs are actually working as they say. This will further reduce the coordination costs of paying people.

As with all complex endeavors, communications are the key to success. By outsourcing the communications to cell phone companies, equipment interoperability and multifunctionality will be assured. Working with the clean team will be attractive to the cell phone companies because it will generate an expanding set of customers eager to enhance their lives in all the ways low-cost communications can. The cell phone companies will see a return on their clean team administration support as members use phones for personal business access to value-added services like phone banking. Certain associated phone numbers would be free calls: everything else would be the responsibility of the clean team member. Cell phone bills could be paid via allotment, further reducing transaction costs and doing away with the need to buy a phone card every week.


The clean team could be established in Afghanistan through a cooperative agreement between the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force, Transparency International and the Afghanistan government. The program could be led officially by the Afghan anti-corruption directorate, the General Independent Administration for Anti-Corruption.

Due to the low training and equipment requirements, three days would more than suffice to train clean team members:

Day 1. Initial training, explanation of the process.

Day 2. Enroll with microcredit bank and cell phone providers. Training on recording equipment.

Day 3. Practice scenarios, review of equipment usage (uploading video to the website and daily “Corruption Follies” TV show, backing up the servers, sending the backup DVDs to Transparency International for archiving in Berlin, etc.).

The military would run the first two sessions, with local Afghan officials in an “under instruction” capacity. The Afghan officials would take the lead in the third session and by the fourth session, Afghan officials would run the program entirely, with perhaps a liaison officer from the military there to answer especially problematic questions. The quick ramp-up to full Afghan ownership will be made possible by the upfront organizational design investments.

Although the clean team will of course cost money to establish and run, these costs should be seen as an investment in more efficient resource utilization and thus as a means to improve the utilization of all monies applied to Afghanistan.


The aim of the clean team is to provide an additional incentive for people to act honestly. Therefore, clean team presence need not be adversarial or unpleasant. Indeed, the clean team presence will in many cases be welcomed, as it provides an excuse for acting virtuously when the peer pressure influences to act dishonestly. Further, some elected officials will embrace the opportunity to publicize their efficiency and fairness. Positive experiences (documented by photos taken by the clean team member with the happy citizen’s camera) will increase the perceived legitimacy of the government and evoke greater support for the government as it performs its key functions.

The clean team, in addition to its primary role of acting like lube oil to reduce corruption-caused friction, will, as a positive externality, provide daily training opportunities in public administration, governance and economics. Monitoring will involve extensive time standing in line and waiting around – instead of wasting that time, it can be made useful through integration into a training program. Like the Navy advancement program, clean team members will gain credit for completing self-study courses. The courses could cover a wide range of subjects: comparative public administration, the Estonian flat tax, Swiss referendums, chicken raising, permaculture, goat health, rainwater harvesting and micro-hydro, and include translations of authors like Friedrich A. Hayek and others. Links with local universities will add additional value to the educational component of the clean team activities.

Establishing the clean team is a direct precision attack on the corruption-caused tumors infecting the body politic. By providing a practical way for individuals to take action against corruption, the clean team will both help assuage the hunger for justice and fairness on the part of citizens, and demonstrate to the broader population that the international military forces are providing them, through innovative organizational design and equipment, a practical mechanism generating near-term effects to improve their lives.

The clean team will not make corruption impossible, but would raise the transaction costs of corrupt activities above the cost of acting honestly. Therefore, clean team presence (like human analogs of intelligent cyber agents monitoring the flow of transactions between citizens and the government personified in the officials at that location) will act as a disruptive innovation, distorting to the point of failure the organizational design and incentives structures that have developed in an environment in which corruption was accepted as normal and inevitable. The clean teams thus smash the ring of Gyges that has emboldened actors to behave dishonestly in order to serve their short-term interests while ensuring long-term penury for their compatriots.

CMDR. MICHAEL HALLETT is a staff officer at NATO’s Supreme Allied Command Transformation. His duties include supporting NATO and partner nations with defense transformation through enhancing military lessons learned capabilities. His previous assignments have included tours with the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters CJ9 in Kabul, Afghanistan.