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Interview: Global Integrity’s Nathaniel Heller on Potential for Corruption in U.S. Statehouses

A map showing the State Integrity Index's scores for all 50 states.
Image courtesy
A map showing the State Integrity Index's scores for all 50 states.

A study of state government safeguards against corruption gave Texas a barely-passing grade of  D-plus.

For the next several months, KUT News will be reporting on the results of the State Integrity Index. This joint project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International is a calculation of each state’s potential or risk of corruption.

The project took over a year and measured the strengths of laws and practices that encourage transparency and deter corruption. It ranks states on corruption risk indicators across 14 categories of government, including access to information and campaign finance rules, executive, legislative and judicial accountability, budgeting, and even redistricting policies.

Joining KUT News to discuss the complicated formula for holding states accountable is Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity.

Emily Donahue for KUT News: So let me ask you first off, why would you take on a project like this?

Nathaniel Heller: That’s a good question. The work that we have been doing for more than a decade at Global Integrity had looked at very similar issues in 100 other countries frankly – and the fact that we have an office in Washington D.C. and half of us are from the U.S. –  at some point sort of the light bulb went on where we said gee, this is a country where state government really matters and we don’t feel that there’s enough understanding of what’s hard wired to work and hard wired to fail when it comes to public corruption issues in the U.S.  And that was sort of the impetus for digging into this project.

KUT NEWS: Your company designed the methodology for this project which had reporters in each state report on 330 corruption risk indicators. I assume that the corruption risk indicators came first. How did you choose them?

NH: That’s exactly right. The first step in the project was a multi-month effort where we went out, both ourselves at Global Integrity and also colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity and started talking to as many experts as we could find across the country who were very familiar with state government issues, with corruption and transparency challenges at the state level. We talked to somewhere between 75 and 100 different experts who ranged from government officials themselves both on and off the record who worked within key agencies, as well as advocacy groups and government groups who’ve sort of been in the trenches trying to fight the fight for a number of decades. We had a really simple question for them which was something like, “what are the biggest challenges when it comes to corruption in your state?” And we got a lot of answers back and after a two or three month period looked at all of those answers, we then were able to sort of identify and tease out the most important issues which we then clustered into these 14 categories which are comprised of these 330 questions.

KUT NEWS: So these indicators are specifically questions. Who did you ask the questions of?

NH: The process in each state was the same. We went out and recruited some of the best statehouse reporters we could find who had been covering these issues, in some cases for decades, and we then sort of set them loose for two or three months  to go and answer those 330 questions. For each of those questions we didn’t ask for just a score based on their own expertise; we sort of forced them to go and do thousands of original interviews with state government officials, with government groups, and with lawyers familiar with some of these issues and specific areas, and also to do a huge amount of desk research – in particular, fairly in-depth legal review of laws and regulations of each state – and so they were forced to source and defend each and every one of those 330 score choices. And all of their comments and their references and their supporting interviews are up on the project website, in the interest of transparency.

KUT NEWS: From the interviews I am assuming that it generated massive amounts of information. How exactly were the results tabulated?

NH: We gathered something around 16,500 data points or answers to those 330 questions across the 50 states. And rather than email massive spreadsheets around the country a thousand times, we instead made use of a web-based platform that we use at Global Integrity for this kind of research all over the world, a platform called Inaba. And all it is, is a website where those reporters would log into and spend a few minutes  – or a few hours  – dumping in interview notes and scores and comments as they were working through the score card. Eventually we had peer reviewers hired in each state as well, who were asked to come in, in a double blind way so they didn’t know who the reporters were and vice versa, to give us feedback as well. So all of that was done through a website that was secure but also very flexible and allowed both the reporters and the project managers to sort of get through this massive amount of content without having to rely on huge files. We didn’t rely on a classic statistics package mainly because we want to put these data out there and allow others to download them, and there are sort of huge clean spreadsheets that people can download and then manipulate them in their own way. The weighting we did choose for the project, which was sort of hard wired into how we published, was one of equal weighting. So we essentially value all of the 14 categories equally and within those categories we simply asked the number of questions we feel it takes to get at the concept so we might have say 40 questions in the state budget transparency category but only 23 in the procurement category. But we treat those two eventual category scores equally.

The reality is, you know, you can very correctly sort of argue that certain categories are more important than others and that’s a really good and interesting conversation to have. And that’s why we want to put these data out there, allow folks to download them and then come up with other sort of alternative ways to interpret these results.

KUT NEWS: With that in mind, are you satisfied that you were able to fully examine the intricacies of state government and agencies? If you had your choice, would you look at other items or have included more in this research?

NH: I think the results are really comprehensive and on the flip side of that coin, there are lots of other issues we could have looked at. When we went out and did those many months of interviews with experts across the country, there were certainly some other issue areas that were identified in a couple of states that clearly  matter and matter significantly in certain states. So just to tick some off, things like gambling, state lottery commissions, infrastructure and highway projects. How those funds are spent, as we all know in certain states, those are really important issues and they can be drivers of corruption and transparency challenges as well. But ultimately the 14 categories and the 330 questions we settled on were the ones that we felt, based on all the discussions with experts, were the most common across the country. So certainly in a number of states you could very easily argue  – yeah, we should have had a 15th or 16th category on certain issues –  but the 14 we settled on we felt were the ones that were most representative of most states across the country. You know a helpful reminder to listeners and even a lot of reporters that are covering this, is the fact that we’re not trying to measure the disease of corruption, but rather the medicine, and so this is a very explicit look not at the problem but at the potential solutions in each state –   the strengths and weaknesses of transparency and anti-corruption safeguards and why that matters and why I think we hope to have a lot of success in engaging with governments in a number of states due to release today, is that what’s here is really a roadmap for reform. It’s not just a “name and shame” index or a “name and shame” report card on the state. It’s highlighting both what’s working and what’s not. And particularly what’s working in certain states is really interesting and innovative and we think there’s a lot of good learning that can occur across states  – and for commissions and agencies in Texas to look at what’s happening in California or in Oregon or in Connecticut , there can be some really interesting reforms to come out of that process. So in terms of going forward that’s what we’re pretty excited with respect to the project.

KUT NEWS: One last question is –  who paid for the research?

NH: There were two or three major foundations that supported the project and they’re  listed at the bottom of the project website. The two largest were the Omidyar Network and the Rita Allen Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Fund also chipped in. The two major funders were the Omidyar Network and the Rita Allen Foundation.

KUT NEWS: Nathaniel Heller is executive director of Global Integrity. You can find full details of the research methodology at I’m Emily Donahue with KUT News.

Emily Donahue is a former grants writer for KUT. She previously served as news director and helped launch KUT’s news department in 2001.
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