The discussion at the 2009 American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) panel on professional ethics took an odd turn. During an exchange about endemic corruption in a particular African electoral system, three members of the audience volunteered that some corruption is acceptable and may be desirable, "so that at least the potholes are filled."
It's not clear why filling potholes is always the example of a service that requires a little political grease, but it may have something to do with traditional graft in street repair contracts in many places. In any event, there followed a short, lively debate about whether corruption must be tolerated for certain purposes. As chair of the session, I found it interesting that this rusty argument is still around.
In 1996, James Jacobs and I published a critique of anti-corruption laws and regulations. We argued that the "pursuit of absolute integrity" had, in large jurisdictions, displaced service provision. "It is more important for me to look honest than to get anything done," we were told by a city commissioner. Corruption had gotten so bad by the 1990s, especially in New York, where the Koch Administration scandals had been followed directly by a new and more stringent set of conflict of interest, procurement, and audit regulations. Even the mayor's selection of cabinet and sub-cabinet officers was delimited and investigated for political influence--and they were formal political appointments!
Downside of Tolerating Corruption
It is perhaps understandable that a critique of the draconian ethics regime of the 1990s would be interpreted as tolerating a bit of useful corruption--the kind that bends the rules in a good cause, gets government moving again, and finally fills potholes. But that is not the lesson of onerous anti-corruption regulation.
Tolerating corruption does not work because it warps the job of public managers and, in fact engenders more regulations. One of the key findings of our study of New York City corruption control at its height, from the 1970s to the 1990s, was that parallel to the stifling imposition of rules on service agencies was opposition to and disregard for the law.
The more elaborate reporting and auditing regimes became, the more likely it was that they would extend over long periods of time. Audits would take years--with multiple audits taking place in a given agency simultaneously--and public managers became adept at challenging the findings of each audit and parsing each regulation to argue its inapplicability.
The other point Jacobs and I made at that time is that while the quality of public administration declined, so did the efficacy of ethics enforcement. Because delivery suffered due to an anti-corruption project that was only able to catch low-level officials (the regular round-ups of building inspectors). The point here is that letting loose a little corruption in order to reenergize the public sector is unlikely to work because corruption is already on the loose.
It is not a choice between a severe audit regime that makes it impossible to rebuild critical infrastructure and the fewer and more lenient audits that will allow rebuilding. It is between an ineffective, corrupt system that is stringently, but badly audited, and the same system with less, but equally ineffective auditing. This is a very poor choice, indeed.
The Municipal-Level Inspector General
What happens when a system finds itself in the stalemate described here? An indicator of the degraded nature of the public sector is seen in the job of the inspector general, who is the chief ethics officer in most municipalities and in most federal agencies.
The corruption and effectiveness stalemate played itself out in a large U.S. city where the IG made an ultimately futile gesture. By a nearly unanimous vote, the council in this particular city agreed to turn the municipal parking system into a public-private partnership for a 75-year lease fee of approximately $1 billion. …