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.
Its 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 mayors selection of cabinet and sub-cabinet
officers was delimited and investigated for political influenceand
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 corruptionthe 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 yearswith multiple audits taking place in a given
agency simultaneouslyand 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 deal was struck to great fanfare and self-congratulation by
both elected and
appointed officials. There was some comment at the time about the
lead negotiator for the city leaving shortly after the deal closed
to take a position with the infrastructure investment division of a
large, international bank. But no real fuss was made. This was a
city that had, in the current fashion, removed most of the onerous
conflict of interest and procurement laws that were seen as
obstructing the common good.
The officials jump to a job with a bank is a classic revolving-door
story, but not illegal under city ordinance or state law. The bank
had not, itself, invested in this specific lease. What is to be
made, then, of the finding by the IG that if the city had decided
to maintain control of the parking system and operate it under the
same terms as the private company, its income from the system more
than 75 years old would be more than twice what the city was paid
for the lease?
Along with other onerous regulations, the city had foregone bidding
for the lease and had left assessment of the deal to the city
council. Stripping away the multiple audits and encrusted controls
enabled the deal to be made quickly, and for the money to be paid
to the city directly. It can be argued that the lease negotiations
were not done effectively. After an initial flurry, the IGs report
was put on the shelf.
The parking lease deal went through because there were no means of
assessing and stopping it. But if the lease process was short on
ethics and not the best deal for the city, maybe thats all that can
be expected. The result is suboptimal: ethics deregulation may have
costs, but dont forget the price of overregulation.
The question becomes whether reinserting basic controls means a
return to overregulation. Its worth noting that the IGs report on
the lease came after the fact, but used the same information
available to the city council and the citys negotiatorsand IG
produced the report quickly.
Networking Ethics and Operations
What is needed to replace both laissez-faire and totalitarian
public ethics is a network that connects those public managers
charged primarily with protecting ethics and those charged
primarily with providing public goods and services. This network is
based on the premise that all public managers are, or should be,
concerned with both ethics and service.
A constructive dialogue between the IG and program directors can
identify corruption vulnerabilities and design routines to ensure
ethics without disrupting service plans. This requires examining
the way that contracts are created, officials are hired, and
training is designed.
IGs in a variety of cities and other jurisdictions around the world
have managed to build such networks, including the Miami-Dade
Inspector General, the Amsterdam Bureau of Integrity, the New York
City Department of Investigation, and the Hong Kong Independent
Commission Against Corruption.
The idea is not to wait until after an arrest to make
recommendations on policy and procedures, but to cooperate on
making those changes to prevent misconduct and inefficiency in the
The second key argument is theres no such thing as a little
corruption or just enough corruption to get things going.
Tolerating bid rigging, phony change orders, kickbacks, and other
means of getting potholes filled cannot be contained in a corner of
the administrative process.
The toleration of corruption becomes a core, political, and
management value in a jurisdiction. A little stealing, especially
if it is done with the intent of improving public service, will
drive out ethics. Public ethics, if they are tied to ineffective
service delivery, will be driven out by the liberating effect of
ChicagoPast and Present
Chicagos political system offers a good example of how tolerating
corruption drives out public ethics. A little corruption under the
political machine that ran Chicago under the first Mayor Richard J.
Daley favored connected contractors, filled jobs with loyalists,
and, it was argued in a favorable comparison with Mayor John
Lindsays New York, got things done.
The kind of corruption my colleagues discussed in the ASPA panel
was the kind the Daley machine perfected. No big scandals,
financial or otherwise, and enough pork, spread widely enough to
satisfy each constituency. This system may have worked, but it
Mayor Daley combined moral rectitude and complete control of the
spoils. His successors had diminishing scruples and turned his
machine into a pay-to-play casino.
The fall of Governor Rod Blagojevich indicated what happens when
just enough grease isnt enough. Not only did the public service
value of corruption disappear, but the political value of a broad
distribution of jobs, contracts, and service was gone, as well. The
machine declined into personal prerogatives. The impeachment report
of the Illinois House of Representatives details the change.
Public Service Ethics
The lesson here is that tolerating a little corruption will not
solve the underlying problems of service distribution and
effectiveness that corruption is intended to address, but actually
What needs to occur is democratic governancework to which a
political machine is unsuited and that a pay-to-play system makes
impossible. That is, a broad consensus that with citizen
involvement, service effectiveness, and integrity can be pursued
jointly and will enhance each other.
In fact, an understanding of the reduction of crime in New York
City or the reform of federal housing program in the last 20 years
shows that measurable public sector effectiveness requires a
parallel dedication to public service ethics. Ethics here includes
service that meets public demand by assessing it regularly and by
exposing service procedures to wide scrutinyaka transparency.
The talk about how much corruption is tolerable or necessary misses
the point. The point has to be connected to the role and mission of
public management. The point has to be legitimate administration,
based on democratic principles. Corruption may be an efficient
mechanism of supply and demand, but it is inadequate to governance
for the very reason that it is a market mechanism.
Government is designed for the public good according to many
definitions. One important definition that may be ignored is
nonetheless hard to dispute: the action of a legitimate governing
body with the democratic authority to collect revenue is necessary
to act where the market fails.
Remember the theory of public goods: Those benefits enjoyed in a
way that is indivisible (the mark of a public good)such as public
safety, sanitation and public health, or fair distribution of
educational opportunitiesrequire ethical government for their
provision and maintenance.
Each of these goods is subject to graft. Bribery of waste carters,
police officers, and school officials generate benefits, such as
avoiding a summons or subverting recycling laws, in the short term,
but in the long term, each public good and the public good erode.
Public managers concerned with both ethics and service performance
look beyond the potholes. The metaphor defeats itself. Filling a
pothole, or many of them over time, if the right palms are greased,
is about the extent of what a little corruption will produce. We
end up with holes, filled and unfilled, but no thought of the
The imperatives of performance measurement have a strong influence
on public management. What is counted counts. The key
recommendations here ought to be built into performance metrics and
outcome scorecards. Basically, the way in which integrity and
effectiveness are combined is what needs to measured. This is
conceptually difficult, but possible.
Trying to operationalize effectiveness has taken the better part of
a generation, and its still controversial. The definition of
integrity is a hot topic among those who study and administer
public sector ethics. The way that a metric can be constructed is
suggested by the proposed network connections between ethics
officials and service delivery officials.
The structure and function of what might be called ethical
performance networks cannot be evaluated by a number in the annual
management report. However, setting out the nature, agenda, and
participation in network contacts and operational changes is a
Types of policy and operational changes can be codified, as can the
type, extent, and durability of the network itself. Training should
be configured to combine knowledge of the way that the agency works
with clear markers of what constitutes effective, honest service.
Ultimately, the word integrity should comprehend both honesty and
effectiveness. A comprehensive meaning of integrity is close to the
way that engineers use the term. For structural engineers, the
soundness (honesty) of a bridge is inextricably connected to its