Planning and Zoning Board Corruption: Finding the Missing Whistleblowers

My last post looked at the constant, pernicious corruption and conflict of interest in local land use planning decisions in the United States. Despite shocking stories and a handful of high-profile investigations and prosecutions (see, for example, here and here), little comprehensive work has been done to address the potential for corruption in planning and zoning decisions, even when warning signs abound. Instead, most instances of corruption in land use planning decisions remain undetected, perhaps because the seemingly small stakes make it unlikely that external investigators will scrutinize these decisions too closely.

Yet potential whistleblowers surely see or suspect bribery, conflicted dealings, or other malfeasance in land use planning. Reforms should make it easier for those individuals to come forward, as well as make it more likely that their reports will lead to action. Ideally, these measures would recognize the particular characteristics of land use decisions, such as the challenges posed by the large numbers of local officials involved in planning and zoning. Here are a few suggestions for how to encourage simpler, more consistent reporting:

Continue reading

Mexico’s Corrupt Mayors: Who Gets Punished at the Ballot Box, and Why

In a democracy, when and why are some politicians electorally punished for corrupt acts, while others get off scot-free? Some answers are commonsense: major scandals generally draw more ire than minor malfeasance; media coverage (and hence voter knowledge) matters; and citizens consider a variety of performance indicators—not just corruption or lack thereof—in selecting politicians. But the details are hazy. Some studies suggest politicians who get caught are more likely face electoral loss, but others find little to no such correlation. Likewise, we know anticorruption candidates often flounder for political reasons, but sometimes they succeed against the odds. So what drives, or contributes to, voter backlash against corrupt politicians?

A recent paper by Harvard scholars Horacio Larreguy, John Marshall, and James Snyder addresses this question in the context of mayoral elections in Mexico. Its conclusions should give pause to anticorruption activists looking for broad-brush solutions. In brief, the paper finds that the devil is in the details: local media coverage can reduce a corrupt incumbent’s vote share, but regional or national media doesn’t seem to matter much; voters do punish corrupt politicians on average, but certain political parties are punished much more than others for the same misconduct; and guaranteeing an audit of public programs reduces malfeasance, but merely threatening a possible audit has little if any effect.

These nuanced findings provide insight into voters’ habits, but they also reinforce the notion that corruption is deeply political—and therefore anticorruption interventions must be context-specific. To unpack this all a bit more, consider the study’s main findings: Continue reading