The Ethical Pothole: Tolerable Corruption? Citizen Involvement, Service Effectiveness, and Integrity Must Be Pursued Jointly to Achieve the Public Good at the Municipal Level

By Anechiarico, Frank | The Public Manager, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Ethical Pothole: Tolerable Corruption? Citizen Involvement, Service Effectiveness, and Integrity Must Be Pursued Jointly to Achieve the Public Good at the Municipal Level


Anechiarico, Frank, The Public Manager


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."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Ethical Pothole: Tolerable Corruption? Citizen Involvement, Service Effectiveness, and Integrity Must Be Pursued Jointly to Achieve the Public Good at the Municipal Level
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.