An Ounce of Prevention

How the Republic of Georgia's fight against corruption can help Detroit

(Note: This originally ran as an Op-Ed in The Detroit News.)

Michigan residents who believe in transparent and efficient government should be heartened by the state's new anti-corruption initiatives, most notably the creation of a Public Integrity Unit under the Office of the Attorney General.

Yet simply prosecuting offenders will not solve corruption problems — prevention is also crucial.

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To be sure, fighting embezzlement, bribery and bureaucratic obstructionism is a difficult task. But it can be done. I know from personal experience.

Until recently, I was part of a team that designed and implemented major successful anti-corruption reforms in my home country, the former Soviet republic of Georgia. When we began in 2003, our task seemed almost hopeless. Georgia had inherited a Soviet-style system of government that was corrupt, overstaffed and ineffective.

Ordinary citizens were forced to deal with corruption on a daily basis. For example, I personally paid $100 to the head of the passport agency to receive my passport without a "hassle." For business owners, it was even worse. And, young applicants to the state university could not "pass" the entrance examinations without paying thousands of dollars to exam graders.

This illustrates the challenges we faced and shows how much progress we made, mainly due to preventive measures rather than prosecution, which unfortunately is Michigan's primary tool for fighting corruption.

One such preventive measure was abolishing many of the bureaucratic barriers for doing business in Georgia. Out of 909 original licenses and permits, only 109 licenses and 50 permits now remain. These reforms effectively dried up a primary source of bribery and dramatically transformed the country's business environment.

Significant public service institutional reforms were also conducted. These reforms resulted in a much smaller executive branch, which is less burdensome on the state budget and practically free of corrupt officials. Last year, Transparency International ranked Georgia as the world's leading anti-corruption reformer.

I readily acknowledge that Georgia is not a model for the United States. To the contrary, the United States is an example for Georgia in countless ways. Yet while Georgia's democratic institutions are still weak, its anti-corruption reforms have been widely hailed as a success.

If Georgia can succeed, surely Michigan can, too. The state should strive to systematically identify corruption-sensitive institutions and address the problem through institutional reforms, whistle-blower policies and stronger monitoring mechanisms for public procurement and the expenditure of state funds. At the same time, government should raise awareness and involve public interest groups in the reform process.

By placing more emphasis on preventing corruption, rather than merely prosecuting offenders who are caught, Michigan will deliver better government to all its residents.