Dossier: Engaging partners

Engaging partners to expand evidence base knowledge: overview of the work done to shed light on the efficiency and impact of some anti-corruption measures

21 February 2024
By Jamie Bergin, Research Coordinator, Transparency International

The WCO Secretariat, while supporting Customs administrations in their efforts to combat corruption and safeguard integrity, identified through its Anti-Corruption and Integrity Promotion (A-CIP) Programme recurring questions regarding anti-corruption measures for which the knowledge available was insufficient. To bridge knowledge gaps and help with Customs’ responses, it turned to the U4 Anti-Corruption Helpdesk, via its funding partner, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. This article presents four papers which were prepared through this partnership and which are available on the WCO website.

U4 Anti-Corruption Helpdesk

Research examining anti-corruption policies in specific sectors of the economy has flourished in the past 20 years. This holds for the cross-border trade and Customs environment, with the emergence of cutting-edge research on a wide range of issues, from shedding light on the dynamics of corruption at borders, to testing the effect of integrity measures on Customs officers. However, the messages such research conveys often do not reach those for whom they could be the most useful, as this research can be highly localized, scattered across various disciplines, or be orientated towards academics rather than practitioners.

Since its establishment in 1993 with the objective of ending the injustice of corruption, Transparency International (TI) has held the firm conviction that anti-corruption policies are doomed to be ineffective if not underpinned by research. To help bridge the gaps between research and practice, TI has been partnering with the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), an independent, non-profit, multi-disciplinary research institute specialized in development studies, based in Bergen, Norway. Since 2003, it has been operating an Anti-Corruption Helpdesk together with the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre (U4) of the CMI.

The Helpdesk team receives corruption-related enquiries and, in response, provides within ten working days a synthesis of the state of research on a particular topic, lessons learned from case studies, and practical recommendations for anti-corruption approaches. The team does not answer questions that have no connection to corruption or require original fieldwork, and does not process requests for concrete policy recommendations. Responses are made available in the form of papers on the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre’s website, as well as Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Knowledge Hub.

The Helpdesk service is currently only available to U4 partner agencies,[1] including the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) which, in 2019, launched with the WCO Secretariat the Anti-Corruption and Integrity Promotion (A-CIP) Programme. Working with Customs administrations benefiting from the Programme enabled Norad and the WCO A-CIP team to identify recurring and emerging questions regarding anti-corruption measures in the Customs environment for which the knowledge available was insufficient. Accordingly, Norad submitted four enquiries to the Helpdesk team, leading to the production of four tailored papers which are summarized below.

Each of these papers was produced through a comprehensive review of the available literature on the topic, drawing on academic literature, media reports and policy documents in the public domain; no primary research was undertaken. Efforts were made to identify and describe studies and examples specific to the Customs sector, but the papers also draw lessons and insights from other sectors. In addition, the papers benefited from consultation with, and peer review by, the extensive network of thematic experts to whom the Helpdesk team has access. The papers are currently undergoing translation into French and Spanish to ensure broader dissemination across WCO Members. They were written to be easily digestible and reader-friendly, and are intended to serve as comprehensive introductions to important topics in Customs work.

Organized criminal groups’ use of corruption and physical threats against Customs officials

Customs administrations around the world have reported incidents in which their officials are physically threatened by organized criminal groups in order to lead them to abuse their power and facilitate illicit activities.

The paper explains that there is general agreement within the literature that organized criminal groups may use both corruption and threats to commit violence as tactics to enable their profit-making activities, but less agreement on what makes them select one tactic over the other. It presents cases which indicate that, in some situations, the groups will use corruption and the threat of violence as substitutes for each other when the alternative is ineffective or too risky, but that, in other situations, they may use them both in tandem, as reinforcing tactics that help them to infiltrate and gain a foothold in institutions. Interestingly, the use of physical threats has been studied comparatively less in the literature, although it clearly presents serious risks to the integrity of Customs administrations.

The paper finds that, rather than taking reactive measures, which are primarily the remit of law enforcement, Customs administrations are best placed to take internally orientated measures to prevent and respond to the infiltration of organized criminal groups.

The paper explores how various integrity measures promoted by the WCO have the potential to be applied and enhanced to prevent the emergence of physical threats and protect Customs officers. It considers safe and secure whistleblowing mechanisms, lifestyle checks, monitoring and control, staff rotation policies, integrity training of officials, ethical leadership and automation of processes.

The literature generally emphasizes that integrity measures should not be implemented in isolation from each other, but holistically. For the purposes of addressing organized criminal groups, the paper argues that implementation of integrity measures should also be preceded by a threat assessment to determine if there is a risk of a violent backlash. Finally, Customs administrations should promote a whole-of-government approach to tackling this issue, and call for the commitment of other external control authorities (such as the police, prosecutors and judicial authorities), without which protection and accountability are likely to be half-baked.

The efficacy of geographic staff rotation in preventing corruption in the Customs sector

This paper considers geographic staff rotation, a widely used measure, including by Customs administrations, to prevent officials from becoming embroiled in corrupt practices. This paper steps back and looks at evidence for the measure’s effectiveness in preventing corruption.

Geographic staff rotation generally entails the rotation of officials across different Customs offices at regular intervals, rather than having the same officials assigned to the same office indefinitely. In practice, the policy can be adapted in many ways, for example, by dictating the length of postings, the level of seniority of officials bound by it, and whether or not the relocation should entail a promotion or occur between positions of the same rank.

The policy may have several aims, but a key one is to deter the development of long-term corrupt relationships that are made possible by a Customs official remaining in a fixed location. The assumption is that officials with a static work location are more likely to develop or become involved in corrupt networks, whereas if staff members are rotated, they will enter a new environment in which a level of uncertainty arises – both on the part of the official and potential bribers – about who is willing to accept their corrupt offer. This very uncertainty, then, should deter that first “leap” that potential corrupt actors need to take.

The paper surveys various models and experiments that have been presented by behavioural economists in the literature, which largely confirm these assumptions and find that rotation can be effective in reducing the incidence and volume of bribes exchanged between a client and public official. These findings appear to be supported by the experiences of Customs administrations in practice.

However, evidence suggests that the measure may be more limited in targeting entrenched networks and relationships underpinned by social norms. Further, the paper highlights risks that geographic staff rotation can backfire and actually facilitate corruption. For example, intermediaries may step in to fill the gap created and build corrupt networks between clients and public officials that operate even more effectively. There is also a risk that it can lead Customs officials to compete among each other and to bribe higher-level officials to influence the location to which they will be posted.

Customs administrations should consider that geographic staff rotation can have significant operational implications. For example, it can create a burden on resources due to costs associated with relocation and necessary training. It can also potentially lead to short and long-term efficiency losses as the know-how officials acquire in one location can become largely redundant in another.

However, these considerations should not lead Customs administrations to rule out using the policy. Instead, the paper recommends avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing geographic staff rotation, giving sufficient attention to contextual factors, and applying the policy in tandem with other integrity measures/safeguards. For example, staff rotation may benefit from background checks and risk management approaches to help inform the selection of suitable and risk-averse locations for specific Customs officials.

The efficacy of undercover integrity testing in preventing corruption

Undercover integrity testing involves simulating an event that places an employee, without their knowledge, in a monitored situation with an opportunity for unethical decision-making. An example is enlisting persons to act as clients to offer the employee what appears to be a bribe.

It has been used as an integrity measure by law enforcement agencies in some jurisdictions, and increasingly by Customs administrations as a means of testing and exposing corruption vulnerabilities in their workplaces.

The paper reviews academic literature and testimonies from practitioners on the measure’s effectiveness. It presents and summarizes evidence that indicates undercover integrity testing tends to carry a reasonably high “failure rate” on the part of the subjects, meaning that they respond unethically to the prompt. This, in turn, can be effective in detecting and deterring corrupt behaviour, but also in identifying the training needs of public officials. Furthermore, it was found that the testing helped break down the “code of silence” which may prevail in a workplace and which can prevent corruption from being reported.

There are two main forms of test used by practitioners: random integrity tests, aimed at officers who are not under any formal suspicion of corruption, and targeted integrity tests, aimed at individuals who are under suspicion of corruption based on prior knowledge. Available evidence suggests that targeted tests are more effective than random tests as they are more cost-effective and can be tailored, meaning they can be designed to better tempt the subject or avoid arousing their suspicion.

Nevertheless, the paper highlights several operational implications Customs administrations must consider before implementing integrity testing, the foremost of which is legality. In some jurisdictions, law enforcement authorities or Customs administrations have the power to conduct undercover integrity testing on Customs officials but, in others, they are precluded from doing so. Furthermore, there are potential legal issues around admissibility of evidence, entrapment concerns and privacy rights which can restrict the use of the measure. Nevertheless, the paper highlights examples of where the inclusion of procedural safeguards has made undercover integrity testing a legally viable option.

Another significant operational implication to consider is the potential negative effect on the morale of Customs officials, who may resist being subjected to such tests. A decision to implement undercover integrity testing should take into account the risk that the measure will probably be unpopular if morale levels are already low. One possible countermeasure to explore in this regard would be the application of undercover integrity testing towards outcomes that more directly benefit staff, such as enhanced training and the identification of candidates for promotion opportunities.


Public sector bodies, including Customs administrations, typically operate internal reward and sanction schemes for their employees, which aim to promote integrity and discourage misconduct in the workplace. These schemes may rely on a combination of an incentive-based approach that rewards demonstrated integrity, with a compliance-based approach that sanctions corrupt behaviour.

However, reward and sanction schemes are largely based on assumptions of rational decision-making, which though relevant, can also neglect more emotion-based aspects of behaviour. This can lead to a risk that the schemes do not produce the desired outcome, and even backfire.

This paper explores the literature to identify some of the key characteristics that should be built into reward and sanction schemes so that they avoid this risk and are more likely to be effective. The paper finds that, when used proportionally and complementarily to each other, reward and sanction schemes can serve as an effective deterrent against corruption in public service. For the reward and sanction schemes to ensure convergence between employees’ personal integrity standards and expectations and those of the organization, they should be part of a robust internal affairs and human resources management system, characterized by a high degree of transparency, accountability, and impartiality.

Evidence indicates that in sectors vulnerable to corruption, such as Customs, both officer and client behaviours respond strongly to financial incentives. Therefore, financial rewards for ethical behaviour as well as administrative penalties for misbehaviour can partly act as a counterweight to the potential illicit gains stemming from corrupt deals. Yet financial rewards and penalties alone are unlikely to always outweigh the lure of dirty money, while moral, psychological, and social factors are also important drivers of desirable behaviour.   As such, the effectiveness of reward and sanction schemes may be heightened where they are aligned with individuals’ non-financial motives, such as professional pride and recognition.

The paper zooms in on three particular schemes – integrity awards, reporting incentives and disciplinary regimes. Integrity awards are a non-monetary prize whereby employees who have demonstrated integrity are publicly praised. By setting a positive example for peers to emulate, integrity awards can help create a culture of integrity in the workplace. However, evidence indicates that the awarding process should be transparent and be perceived as fair to avoid any possible feelings of resentment from arising.

Disciplinary regimes seek to punish misconduct such as corruption, but also promote orderliness among civil servants. They act as a catch-all term for common disciplinary measures administered internally, such as written or oral warnings, written public reprimands, fines and docked pay, demotion, suspension, and dismissal. Evidence suggests that such measures should be designed carefully and that efforts should be made to ensure that the workforce supports accountability.

Reporting mechanisms aim to ensure that corruption-related incidents in the workplace are uncovered, assessed and responded to. This includes not only a typical whistleblowing scheme, where officials report suspected corruption involving their peers, their superiors or clients, but also self-reporting, where officials confess their own misconduct. There are risks associated with integrating financial or non-financial incentives into reporting mechanisms as they can lead to false claims being made.

Avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach

These four papers cover a wide range of topics which speak to the multifaceted and critical nature of Customs work itself. However, behind all the papers is a common objective to understand the circumstances and conditions in which policies are implemented effectively. Therefore, each of them calls for the avoidance of a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing integrity measures and tools in Customs. Otherwise, they can lead to an imbalance between other aspects essential to a thriving work environment, or also lead to a risk of backfiring, causing a breakdown in relations with employees and, in the worst cases, even triggering corruption.

Fortunately, supporting anti-corruption research can ensure that policy nuances are better understood and lead to more informed, careful and deliberate policy-setting. This is why the Anti-Corruption Helpdesk has found it very rewarding to partner with WCO, and believes this cooperation serves as a positive testament to the 2024 theme of “Customs Engaging Traditional and New Partners with Purpose”.

More information

[1] U4 partner agencies are select bilateral international development agencies and the Foreign Ministries of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.