New possibilities for cutting corruption in the public sector

Rema Hanna and Vestal McIntyre at VoxDev: “In their day-to-day dealings with the government, citizens of developing countries frequently encounter absenteeism, demands for bribes, and other forms of low-level corruption. When researchers used unannounced visits to gauge public-sector attendance across six countries, they found that 19% of teachers and 35% of health workers were absent during work hours (Chaudhury et al. 2006). A recent survey found that nearly 70% of Indians reported paying a bribe to access public services.

Corruption can set into motion vicious cycles: the government is impoverished of resources to provide services, and citizens are deprived of the things they need. For the poor, this might mean that they live without quality education, electricity, healthcare, and so forth. In contrast, the rich can simply pay the bribe or obtain the service privately, furthering inequality.

Much of the discourse around corruption focuses on punishing corrupt offenders. But punitive measures can only go so far, especially when corruption is seen as the ‘norm’ and is thus ingrained in institutions. 

What if we could find ways of identifying the ‘goodies’ – those who enter the public sector out of a sense of civic responsibility, and serve honestly – and weeding out the ‘baddies’ before they are hired? New research shows this may be possible....

You can test personality

For decades, questionnaires have dissected personality into the ‘Big Five’ traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These traits have been shown to be predictors of behaviour and outcomes in the workplace (Heckman 2011). As a result, private sector employers often use them in recruiting. Nobel laureate James Heckman and colleagues found that standardized adolescent measures of locus control and self-esteem (components of neuroticism) predict adult earnings to a similar degree as intelligence (Kautz et al. 2014).

Personality tests have also been put to use for the good of the poor: our colleague at Harvard’s Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD), Asim Ijaz Khwaja and collaborators have tested, and then subsequently expanded, personality tests as a basis for identifying reliable borrowers. This way, lenders can offer products to poor entrepreneurs who lack traditional credit histories, but who are nonetheless creditworthy. (See the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab’s website.)

You can test for civic-mindedness and honesty

Out of the personality-test literature grew the Perry Public Sector Motivation questionnaire (Perry 1996), which comprises a series of statements that respondents can state their level of agreement or disagreement with measures of civic-mindedness. The questionnaire has six modules, including “Attraction to Policy Making”, “Commitment to Public Interest”, “Social Justice”, “Civic Duty”, “Compassion”, and “Self-Sacrifice.” Studies have found that scores on the instrument correlate positively with job performance, ethical behaviour, participation in civic organisations, and a host of other good outcomes (for a review, see Perry and Hondeghem 2008).

You can also measure honesty in different ways. For example, Fischbacher and Föllmi-Heusi (2013) formulated a game in which subjectsroll a die and write down the number that they get, receiving higher cash rewards for larger reported numbers. While this does not reveal with certainty if any one subject lied since no one else sees the die, it does reveal how far their reported numbers were from the uniform distribution. Those with high dice high points have a higher probability of having cheated. Implementing this, the authors found that “about 20% of inexperienced subjects lie to the fullest extent possible while 39% of subjects are fully honest.”

These and a range of other tools for psychological profiling have opened up new possibilities for improving governance. Here are a few lessons this new literature has yielded….(More)”.