Serious about fixing corruption? Whichever way you look at it, FIFA doesn’t come out well

And the winner is… EPA/Walter Bieri

It is not known whether Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, has ever digested any of Karl Marx’s work. If he has, then he will no doubt be well aware that history has a tendency to repeat itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Rarely has this been more apparent than with the case of FIFA’s decision to ask Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup and the allegations of corruption and interest-peddling that now surround it.

The details naturally remain hazy – football hasn’t had its Lou Vincent moment just yet – but the evidence that is seeping out makes many within FIFA look like they have behaved in a way that ranges from the inappropriate to the dismally predictable, the hopelessly naïve to the deliberately selfish. And this is not for the first time.

It wasn’t too long ago that FIFA claimed it was turning over a new leaf. Gone were the days of backroom deals, we were told, as well as the subtle (or not so subtle) agreements between powerbrokers. FIFA claimed it was going to reform itself to be at the forefront of the battle against corrupt practices. A two-tier ethics committee would receive beefed up powers, and a new committee composed of “respected personalities inside and outside football to evaluate and propose solutions to the challenges faced by the organisation” would oversee FIFA’s work.

A much more open process would also be introduced to ensure that the best bidder is gifted the golden goose of hosting the World Cup finals. With these reforms, FIFA, so its leaders believed, would continue to be the benevolent godfather of world football.

Kicking off

FIFA’s inability to deal with the fallout of the Qatar World Cup bid since then indicates that nice though these new structures sound, they don’t appear to be much use in clearing up that particular murky story. The more tricky question is whether the story of FIFA’s apparent failure is because of a lack of real intent to do so, or because of factors outside its control. FIFA’s head honchos obviously claim the latter.

To be fair to them, tackling corruption is not easy, and stories of failed attempts to do just that are legion. Some anti-corruption campaigns are launched to do nothing more than defend the status quo: fiddle around the edges, talk tough, wield a big stick occasionally, but skilfully avoid changing anything substantive. Business carries on as normal, all the while lauding the efforts to do exactly the opposite. Other anti-corruption campaigns mean well, but their policy prescriptions simply won’t work. The theory might be good, but the practice can be much less so.

So how can we judge whether the attempt to tackle an apparent corruption problem, regardless of the outcome, was genuine? It helps if we break down the attempt into components that are meaningful and measurable. Derick Brinkerhoff argues that means we should look for some specific things.

First up, where does the initiative come from? If the push for change comes more or less exclusively from external actors, then be suspicious. If actors within an organisation aren’t driving things forward, don’t expect too much in the way of genuine buy-in.

Next, the proposed new arrangements need to be based on technically sound, broadly accepted sets of recommendations. And the key actors within the organisation need to “consult with, engage, and mobilise stakeholders”. They need, in other words, to craft coalitions of support for what they are doing.

These preferences then need to be publicly stated and, crucially, to have resources assigned to them, while the sanctions for those caught contravening any of the new rules and regulations need to be seen as effective. They then send out clear signals about what will and won’t be tolerated. As Brinkerhoff notes, symbolic and/or selective enforcement points to a half-hearted willingness to tackle the problem.

Into extra time

The organisation also needs to show that it is in for the long haul. One-shot or episodic efforts signal the very opposite of a clear agenda for tackling corruption. Finally, the organisation needs to show an openness to new ideas as well as a willingness to learn and to adapt. Anti-corruption is not, in other words, an event, it’s an ongoing process.

If FIFA were to score well in each of these categories, then we could genuinely say that it has made a real effort to tackle its corruption problems. If FIFA had done some of the above, but had had problems with others then we could certainly give it the benefit of the doubt, before investigating in more depth why it’s had problems in some specific areas. Conceptualising the will to do something is not a case of “yes” or “no”, there are far too many nuances involved for that. The components that Brinkerhoff talks about nonetheless give us a fair idea of where an organisation might need to do more work.

So how does FIFA fare? Just about all of the initiatives for change have come from exposés by investigative journalists or by leaks that have somehow entered the public domain. FIFA’s new governance structures are clearly an improvement on what it had before, but there is still an unwillingness to let external eyes and ears make judgements on internal processes.

That’s two failures out of two. Does FIFA “consult with, engage, and mobilise stakeholders”? This is harder to define, but it is pretty clear that influencing what happens within FIFA’s corridors of power is difficult. Let’s be charitable though; the jury might plausibly be out on this one.

FIFA appears to be adept at giving outside voices narrow briefs and limited resources. So, this isn’t a complete failure (as outside voices are at least invited), but more work can certainly be done. The sanctions that FIFA places on miscreants are significant, but very few people ever seem to be sanctioned. Too many dark corners still exist. The clear signal seems to be that if they have to, they will act. But at the moment they risk giving the impression that they will do all they can to avoid getting there.

Is FIFA in for the long haul? The jury is again out, but there is still a feeling that cases are denied until it’s impossible to maintain that position, and one gets a real feeling that “sit tight and it will pass” underpins much of FIFA’s anti-corruption work.

The story here is, as is always the case, still not a straightforward one. It takes time to affect cultural change in an organisation as diverse as FIFA. However, if we take Brinkerhoff’s criteria as a guide, then, no matter how you look at it, FIFA has work to do. And an awful lot of it.