Guest Post: A Behavioral Science Approach to Preventing Corruption

Johann Graf Lambsdorff, Professor of Economic Theory at Passau University, contributes the following guest post:

Some of our current approaches to corruption prevention perform badly. One reason is that many preventive methods are built on distrust towards officials and employees, who are seen as potentially corrupt actors. Yet research in behavioral science has provided us with impressive evidence that (many) people are (mostly) trustworthy, intrinsically motivated, and responsive to encouragement, praise, expressions of gratitude, and criticism. The problem with assuming that everyone is prone to engage in corruption if not carefully monitored is not only that prevention strategies premised on that assumption are very costly, but also that such approaches can be counterproductive: The atmosphere of distrust that they create can reduce interpersonal trust, intrinsic motivation, and the self-esteem that people get from contributing to public goods and working responsibly.

Economists have labelled these adverse collateral consequences “the hidden costs of control.” In a recent paper entitled “Preventing Corruption by Promoting Trust – Insights from Behavioral Science”, I explain how taking this phenomenon, as well related insights from behavioral sciences about creating positive incentives for good behavior, can help us design more effective policies. The paper illustrates this with the help of six examples: Continue reading

Community-Level Aid and Corruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

As Rick has discussed in a previous post, one common strategy adopted by donors seeking to engage in development and humanitarian work in countries with corrupt governments is to try to bypass national institutions. Instead, they direct their efforts towards the local level, engaging with communities, local leaders, and smaller-scale NGOs. Theoretically, this approach means the money passes through fewer hands, and there are therefore fewer opportunities for some of it to be skimmed off. Furthermore, donors may believe that local institutions are less corrupt or more easily subjected to (or more responsive to) monitoring by donors or other overseers. Donors may also opt for a local-oriented approach for reasons not related to corruption, like supporting projects that are more responsive to people’s actual needs, furthering community empowerment, and building institutions.

However, recent evidence from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) indicates that a local-oriented approach has its corruption-related drawbacks. Resources channeled through national political figures may have the potential to be stolen or misdirected for personal gain, but community-driven development programs are also vulnerable to elite capture. In fact, broader research has indicated that members of community development organizations—the very people with whom donors are partnering in hopes of side-stepping corruption—are more likely to pay bribes than non-members.  Furthermore, even when donor programs succeed in creating infrastructure, they tend to fail to improve local governance, accountability, or capacity.

Still, given the pervasive corruption in national governments (in the DRC and elsewhere), and the way those in power benefit from avoiding any meaningful action against corruption, the impulse towards local-side aid is understandable. What, then, are donors to do? Though it’s impossible to guarantee positive results, there are some steps that foreign governments and NGOs can take to mitigate the risk of the money targeted locally from being illicitly diverted:

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Guest Post: Monitoring as a Democratic Imperative

Professor Paul Lagunes of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs contributes the following guest post:

The fact the bureaucrats who populate the ranks of the public administration do not run for office poses a significant challenge to electoral democracy—a challenge that is accentuated by citizens’ inability to properly monitor their own government. Citizens, after all, dedicate a majority of their time to private affairs and are often confused, if not repelled, by the complexities of public administration. Given this principal-agent problem, what can be done to improve monitoring, fight corruption, and hold governments accountable?

I recently had the opportunity to evaluate the efficacy of anticorruption monitoring in Mexico. This research indicates that independent audits over sensitive governmental processes can boost the levels of discipline, stringency, and honesty among civil servants. Indeed, even when communities find it difficult to overhaul their governing institutions and renew and professionalize their bureaucracies, they can rely on independent experts to raise bureaucrats’ level of accountability. But the improved monitoring associated with independent audits is only when accompanied by robust oversight and accountability. Continue reading

New York City Pays a Steep Price for Failing to Guard a Guardian

This past Monday, April 28, U.S. federal trial court judge George B. Daniels sentenced three persons at the center of a corrupt scheme that cost New York City some $600 million to 20 years each in prison.  Despite the massive loss and the large number of firms and individuals that participated, the scheme was quite simple.  Its simplicity, and the vulnerability of a government as large and sophisticated as that of New York City to it, is a stark reminder of how critical contract administration — one of the more prosaic-sounding responsibilities of government — is to controlling corruption.

The New York scam arose from a $63 million contract to modernize its payroll system. Software contracts, like construction contracts, can take months if not years to perform and may need to be modified as the contractor runs into issues not anticipated when the contract was drafted.  More computer code than initially foreseen may be required to capture the way employees in some departments record their hours; a road may have to be re-routed because the ground along the original route turns out to be unstable.  But it may also be that more code isn’t needed or that the original routing of the road is fine.  Instead, it may simply be that the contractor is looking for a way to squeeze more money out of government.

To deal with this concern, governments typically rely on expert professionals to evaluate a contractor’s requests for change orders. Often these professionals also decide whether the completed project meets contract specifications.  They thus serve as guardians of project quality and integrity.  What happened in New York was simple: the guards deserted their post, conspiring with the contractor to bilk the city of out hundreds of millions of dollars. Where the city erred was its failure to heed the famous question attributed to the Roman satirist Juvenal:  Who guards the guardians?

Heeding that question and coming up with a satisfactory answer are, of course, two different things.  What can a government do to avoid the sort of collusion that cost New York City so much money? Continue reading