Perception-based corruption indicators, though still the most widely-used and widely-discussed measures of corruption at the country level, get a lot of criticism (some of it misguided, but much of it fair). The main alternative measures of corruption include experience surveys, which ask a representative random sample of firms or citizens about their experience with bribery. Corruption experience surveys are neither new nor rare, but they’re getting more attention these days as researchers and advocates look for more “objective” ways of assessing corruption levels and monitoring progress. Indeed, although some early discussions of measurement of progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) anticorruption target (Target 16.5) suggested—much to my chagrin—that changes in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) score would be the main measure of progress, more recent discussions appear to indicate that in fact progress toward Goal Target 16.5 will be assessed using experience surveys (see here and here).
Of course, corruption experience surveys have their own problems. Most obviously, they typically only measure a fairly narrow form of corruption (usually petty bribery). Also, there’s always the risk that respondents won’t answer truthfully. There’s actually been quite a bit of interesting recent research on that latter concern, which Rick discussed a while back and that I might post about more at some point. But for now, I want to put that problem aside to focus on a different challenge for bribery experience surveys: When presenting or interpreting the results of those surveys, should one control for the amount of contact the respondents have with government officials? Or should one focus on overall rates of bribery, without regard for whether or how frequently respondents interacted with the government?
To make this a bit more concrete, imagine two towns, A and B, each with 1,000 inhabitants. Suppose we survey every resident of both towns and we ask them two questions: First, within the past 12 months, have you had any contact with a government official? Second, if the answer to the first question was yes, did the government official demand a bribe? In Town A, 200 of the residents had contact with a government official, and of these 200, 100 of them reported that the government official they encountered solicited a bribe. In Town B, 800 residents had contact with a government official, and of these 800, 200 reported that the official solicited a bribe. If we don’t control for contact, we would say that bribery experience rates are twice as high in Town B (20%) as in Town A (10%). If we do control for contact, we would say that bribery experience rates were twice as high in Town A (50%) as in Town B (25%). In which town is bribery a bigger problem? In which one are the public officials more corrupt?
The answer is not at all obvious; both controlling for contact and not controlling for contact have potentially significant problems: Continue reading