Guest Post: Refining Corruption Surveys To Identify New Opportunities for Social Change

GAB is delighted to welcome back Dieter Zinnbauer, Programme Manager at Transparency International, who contributes the following guest post:

Household corruption surveys, such as Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) are primarily, and very importantly, focused on tracking the scale and scope of citizens’ personal bribery experience and their general perceptions about corruption levels in different institutions. More recently, the GCB has branched out into questions about what kind of action against corruption people do or do not take, and why. The hope is that better understanding what motivates people to take action against corruption will help groups like TI develop more effective advocacy and mobilization strategies.

In addition to these direct questions about why people say they do or don’t take action against corruption, household surveys have the potential to help advocacy groups in their efforts to mobilize citizens in another way as well: by identifying inconsistencies or discrepancies between what people’s experience of corruption and their perceptions of corruption. The existence of these gaps is not in itself surprising, but learning more about them might help advocates craft strategies for changing both behavior and beliefs. Consider the following examples:

  • First, “me vs. others”: Surveys might identify gaps between citizens’ beliefs about how their fellow citizens think and act, and the reality of their beliefs and actions. Such gaps are important, because sometimes the most effective strategies for changing behavior involve changing (often correcting) people’s perceptions about what others think or do. To take an admittedly imperfect analogy, consider binge drinking by college students. Surveys have found that the majority of students don’t actually enjoy binge drinking, but do it anyway because they wrongly think that most of their peers enjoy it and find it cool. The result is a situation of “pluralistic ignorance,” in which a behavior that few people actually enjoy becomes common practice. And it turns out that interventions to combat binge drinking are more effective when, instead of simply trying to convince students that binge drinking is unhealthy, also provide information on what their peers actually think of binge drinking. If we ask the right questions, we might find something similar in the corruption context. Suppose, hypothetically, we find in a survey that 80% of respondents think petty bribery is wrongful and should be reported, but also believe (incorrectly) that a majority of their fellow citizens think petty bribery is acceptable and wouldn’t report it. This would be a classic example of pluralistic ignorance, and one that might invite an intervention that would focus not so much on telling people that bribery is bad, but on informing them that the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens think bribery is bad and should be reported.
  • Second, “local vs. national”: Surveys could try to identify any gaps between how respondents experience corruption by the local representation of specific government agency (say, police officers in the respondent’s community) and respondents’ perceptions of corruption in that institution in general, at the local or national level (corruption in “the police”). Possible discrepancies between personal experience of corruption and perception of corruption in an institution, as well as gaps in the perception of corruption in an institution at the local and national levels, may help us better understand how attitudes towards corruption are shaped, as well as the dynamics of attitudinal change.
  • Third, “present vs. future”: Surveys can help identify differences between respondents’ assessments of the past and their beliefs and expectations about the future. That is, surveys can ask citizens (a) what they feel is the case right now with respect to certain norms related to integrity (in general or in some more specific context), (b) where they would like to be in the future with regard to these norms, or what they hope is done, and (c) what they think will actually happen and what these norms will look like in the future. Some recent large-scale surveys in Germany have taken this three-step approach in order to tease out some imminent value changes and generate interesting insights about how social norms and practices in Germany are changing.

While I am not quite sure how to apply this particular approach to corruption surveys, I think it would be very worthwhile to explore all these three approaches further and perhaps other, similar ones. Undoubtedly, the main constraint for such efforts will be money since each additional survey question raises the price tag significantly. This raises another interesting question about how corruption surveys can be organized in financially more viable ways, which I hope to address in a future post.)

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