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CORRUPTION CONTROL IS OFTEN NOT WORTH THE EFFORT

By staff  |  Contact staff
Posted January 31, 1997
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When it comes to controlling corruption, a pound of prevention is often worth an ounce of cure, according to two researchers who studied the problem in New York City.

"Anticorruption efforts provide excellent political cover for public officials," says Frank Anechiarico, the Maynard-Knox Professor of Government and Law at Hamilton College, "but they make little sense economically."

Anechiarico and James Jacobs, professor of law and director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, question the widely held belief that corruption should be eliminated no matter what the cost. The results of their study are contained in The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity: How Corruption Control Makes Government Ineffective. The book was published by the University of Chicago Press in December as part of its "Studies in Crime and Justice Series."

Based on case studies gleaned from anticorruption efforts over the past century and on interviews conducted with over 200 current and former New York City officials, the authors show how the pursuit of "absolute integrity" shapes priorities and leads to delays, frustration, reductions in productivity, and lack of discretion for decision-makers.

An attempt by the New York City Department of Buildings to eliminate "theft of time corruption" illustrates the point:

"The most recent anticorruption protocol ... requires all field inspectors to return to borough headquarters at the end of the day, instead of leaving for home from the last inspection site. The policy is meant to ensure that personnel do not leave work early. While no one knows how much, if any, corruption has been prevented, there has been a nearly 30 percent reduction in inspector productivity because of the time consumed in returning to the office. This policy perfectly illustrates how the

Progressive vision of virtuous public professionals has been superseded by panoptic control."

Other examples include the city's inability to rebuild the Central Park ice skating rink or examine its schools for asbestos.

"Our ability to govern is constrained as much by corruption control as by the corruption itself," according to Anechiarico. "The pursuit of corruption-free government often has as much to do with making government wasteful, unresponsive and bureaucratic as the corruption itself."

"After pursuing the vision of corruption-free government for almost a century, we have the worst of both worlds -- too much corruption and too much corruption control," say the authors. In some instances, Anechiarico adds, the twin problems of corruption and corruption control lead to a situation where the latter becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the former.

Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg says, "Anechiarico and Jacobs show that current efforts to eradicate corruption amount to a cure that is far worse than the disease. Those who wish to pursue absolute integrity should absolutely stop and read this book."

While Anechiarico and Jacobs conducted their research in New York, they say corruption and corruption control are problems for all levels of government throughout the U.S. The impetus for this project stemmed from the authors' collaboration with the New York State Organized Crime Task Force in a study of corruption and racketeering in the New York City construction industry. "The Task Force's determination to mobilize government in an all-out drive against corruption kindled our interest in the effects of the anti-corruption project on public administration," according to the authors.

"We recognize that corruption has a negative impact on government," Anechiarico says, "but current effects have not only impeded government service, they have done little to reduce corruption. We suggest how the current anticorruption project may be fine-tuned and how more radical changes in public administration may help.

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