Corruption in the USA: The difference a year makes

Corruption in the USA: The difference a year makes

New public opinion survey compares 2017 with 2016

The US faces a wide range of domestic challenges related to the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, which is Transparency International’s definition of corruption.

Key issues include the influence of wealthy individuals over government; “pay to play” politics and the revolving doors between elected government office, for-profit companies, and professional associations; and the abuse of the US financial system by corrupt foreign kleptocrats and local elites.

The current US president was elected on a promise of cleaning up American politics and making government work better for those who feel their interests have been neglected by political elites. 

Yet, rather than feeling better about progress in the fight against corruption over the past year, a clear majority of people in America now say that things have become worse. Nearly six in ten people now say that the level of corruption has risen in the past twelve months, up from around a third who said the same in January 2016.

A new survey by Transparency International, the US Corruption Barometer 2017, was carried out in October and November 2017. It shows that the US government and some key institutions of power still have a long way to go to win back citizens’ trust.

The results show: 

  • 44 per cent of Americans believe that corruption is pervasive in the White House, up from 36 per cent in 2016.
  • Almost 7 out of 10 people believe the government is failing to fight corruption, up from half in 2016. 
  • Close to a third of African-Americans surveyed see the police as highly corrupt, compared to a fifth across the survey overall.
  • 55 per cent gave fear of retaliation as the main reason not to report corruption, up from 31 per cent in 2016. 
  • 74 per cent said ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.

Office of the President seen as most corrupt

The survey asked about the degree of corruption in nine influential groups. These included the national government (the president’s office, members of congress, government officials), public officials who work at the service level (tax officials, the police, judges, local officials), and those who are not part of government but who often wield strong influence (business executives, religious leaders).

Of these categories, government institutions and officials in Washington are perceived to be the most corrupt in the country. The results show that 44 per cent of Americans now say that most or all of those in the Office of the President are corrupt, up from 36 per cent who said the same last year. 



Additionally, many people hold an unfavourable view of big business. Almost a third of people in the United States think that most or all business executives are corrupt.

In comparison, judges are seen to be the cleanest, with just 16 per cent thinking that they are highly corrupt.

A higher proportion of African-Americans surveyed view the police as highly corrupt: 31 per cent, versus an average of 20 per cent across all those surveyed.

Weaker government efforts to stop corruption

The findings also reveal that people are now more critical of government efforts to fight corruption. From just over half in 2016, nearly seven in ten people in the United States now say that the government is doing a bad job at combatting corruption within its own institutions – this is despite widespread commitments to clean up government.



Voting still the most effective action people can take

At the same time, the survey reveals that despite increased concerns about the level of corruption, many people feel empowered to make a difference, demonstrating that citizens can engage with the issue.



When we asked what actions would be most effective at fighting corruption, using the ballot box came out top. Twenty-eight per cent said that voting for a clean candidate or a party committed to fighting corruption is the most effective thing they could do. However, this figure has declined from 34 per cent in 2016.

There has been a slight increase in the proportion of people saying that some form of direct action away from the ballot box would be most effective – speaking out on social media, joining a protest march, joining an anti-corruption organisation, signing a petition, talking to friends or relatives, or boycotting a business. Collectively, a quarter of people in the United States now think these are the most effective things they can do, up from 17 per cent in 2016.

A further 21 per cent said that reporting corruption was the most effective solution.

Fear of retaliation prevents more people from reporting corruption

In reality, however, many people don’t come forward to report corruption when they see or experience it. When we asked why that might be, Americans now overwhelmingly say it is because they are afraid of suffering retaliation as a result. Over half of people (55 per cent) cited this as the main reason more people don’t come forward: a substantial increase since 2016, when only 31 per cent said the same.


Americans have expressed their frustration with Washington and its elected officials in myriad ways. Yet there are things that can be done to ensure that institutions are clean and that taxpayer dollars are spent in alignment with the public's concerns and not just with special corporate and elite interests.

Transparency International calls on the US Government to address the following:

1.  Transparency in political spending:

Make all spending on politics genuinely transparent, with:

- real-time information accessible in online, machine-readable form to the public
- transparency on political spending by publicly traded companies
- transparency to the public on every level of influence, from political ad campaigns, to lobbying, to bundled campaign contributions.

2. Prevention of revolving doors:

Stop the unchecked exchange of personnel among corporations, lobbyists and our elected and high-level government officials.

3. Establishing who owns what:

End the use of anonymous shell companies, which can be a source of conflict of interest and/or vehicles for illicit activity.

4. Strengthening the ethics infrastructure:

Reinforce the independence and oversight capabilities of the Office of Government Ethics.

5. Protection of whistleblowers:

Improve and implement laws and regulations to protect the whistleblowers who expose corruption and other misconduct by the government and its contractors.

6. Providing basic access to information:

Increase access to information about the government, as a means to empower the public to fight corruption.


Earlier this year Transparency International highlighted how corruption and inequality can create fertile ground for populist leaders, but that such populist politics do little to actually stop corruption. The findings of the US Corruption Barometer 2017 reinforce this message. America needs actions – not just words – towards a cleaner and more open government. 


Transparency International commissioned Efficience3 to carry out the US Barometer 2017. Efficience3 directed a Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing of 1,005 respondents from October 2017 to November 2017. Respondents were selected using Random Digital Dialling. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all adults in the United States aged 18+ by age, gender, social grade, region, rural/urban area, and ethnicity. Efficience3 conducted a comparable survey of 1,001 respondents for Transparency International from January 2016 to February 2016.

Due to rounding, percentages may not total 100%.

Survey results compiled by Coralie Pring, Research Expert, Transparency International

Image: Unsplash, Jason Leung

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