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Want Honest Public Servants? Pay Them Better

New research from Germany finds that public servants are more likely to accept bribes if their income is lower than that of the citizen doing the bribing.
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Do you want public officials to be more honest? Pay them more.

That’s the conclusion of a newly published study from Germany, which concludes that “increasing the wage of public officials greatly reduces their corruptibility.”

Writing in the Journal of Economic Psychology, Berlin-based researcher R. van Veldhuizen describes a laboratory experiment featuring 75 people, all but one of them university students.

Each was assigned the role of either a public official or a citizen with a need. In some cases, both were told that the “public official’s” wage was equal to the income of the citizen; in others cases, both knew that the citizen earned significantly more than the public servant.

"The results also show that economics students are approximately 30 percentage points more likely to accept bribes and choose the corrupt option than other participants."

Members of the two groups were paired off and interacted with one another over the course of 25 rounds, in order for them to establish a relationship. During each round, the “citizen” decided whether to offer the “public official” a bribe, and if so for how much. The “public official” then chose whether to accept it; a “yes” set in motion a process where both players’ rewards were increased.

Both were aware that the bribe money was coming out of an amount set aside to be donated to a major charity of their choice. So while both would benefit monetarily from the transaction, it would be at the expense of the common good.

They also realized that the experiment was being monitored, and there was a small chance a bribe would be detected, which would result in both parties being disqualified.

The results: Once the parties’ relationship was firmly established, low-wage “public officials” accepted 91 percent of bribes offered. High-wage officials accepted only 38 percent.

“Experienced high-wage public officials (those who had already interacted for 10 rounds of the 25-round experiment) were 27 percentage points less likely to accept the corrupt option,” van Veldhuizen writes.

An analysis of the data found the presence of the monitoring system was an important factor in keeping corruption down among high-wage workers. However, the rate of monitoring in this experiment “was very small,” van Veldhuizen notes. “This suggests that the mere presence of monitoring may have served as a signal to public officials that accepting bribes is not a moral thing to do.”

Even with the threat of being caught, however, the officials who made less money than the citizens they were interacting with were still far more likely to accept a bribe. Perhaps that feeling of inequality or unfairness made the corruption justifiable in their eyes--even though they knew that a charity they believed in would suffer as a result.

One other note: Continuing our theme of the amorality of business majors (which showed up in a study we reported on earlier this week), van Veldhuizen writes: “The results also show that economics students are approximately 30 percentage points more likely to accept bribes and choose the corrupt option than other participants.”

That unsettling fact aside, this research contains an obvious piece of advice to governments: Pay your employees decently. If you don't, be aware that they will face a significant temptation to cheat the system.