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Perceived Corruption & Low Public Respect

Subtopics for this page:

Public concern about corruption

Improving perceptions of the public service

Assets disclosure by public officials

Recommended websites

Recommended readings: (general)

Recommended readings: (public respect)

Recommended readings (corruption & development)

Respect for the public service matters

Low public respect for the public service is more than the response of disappointed consumers to an inadequate level of service. Government is more than a service provider; and  finding the right balance between skepticism and confidence in government will always be difficult. Certainly, though, very low confidence and widespread cynicism about the performance of government can have pernicious consequences, undermining democratic institutions and reducing the attractiveness of the public service as a career to those with talent. Survey evidence in OECD countries has shown some troubling signs that public cynicism about the public service is increasing. However, the picture is distinctly nuanced.

The public in many countries appears to be expressing more disillusionment with the performance of politicians than of the permanent civil service. Research in the USA on trust in government has highlighted that public confidence in government and the image of the public sector are inextricably linked (Kamarck 1998). Clearly, the public's negative view of political wrongdoing has a spill-over effect on the reputation of public servants.

Survey data indicate that citizens oftentimes have more confidence in public servants than in politicians. Still, there is only modest comfort in this finding. Citizens tend to rate the ethical standards of both public servants and politicians less highly than other professions. In Canada, for example, 87% of citizens have a high trust in nurses, compared to 46% for business leaders, 30% for federal public servants, and 13% for politicians (Ekos Research Associates, "Rethinking Government," March 1999). The same survey found 83% of Canadians rank the ethical standards of NGO volunteers as high, compared to 65% for small business people, 42% for public servants, and 17% for politicians.

The incentives for media to emphasize critiques in their reporting of government, and the problem of scale whereby relatively small government payment errors can be presented as huge dollar amounts both fuel public cynicism, reinforcing a genuine sense of a performance deficit in government. Yet, the failure to identify specific services when surveying public opinion can also produce survey results that suggest an unrealistically low evaluation of government service quality. Some recent research in Canada undertaken by the Canadian Centre for Management Development has shown that Canadians rate the quality of many government services as high or higher than private sector services. Citizens understand that government has a more difficult role than the private sector, balancing efficiency with the public interest. Nevertheless, Canadians expect the quality of government services to be as high or higher than that of private sector services. Indeed, 95% of Canadians believe that, compared to the private sector, government should provide higher (42%) or about the same (53%) level of service.

Public concern about corruption                                      

A common definition of corruption is "the abuse of public office for private gain." Clearly, corruption (both political and bureaucratic) can have a devastating social and economic impact. (Click here to access the World Bank’s website on Anticorruption.) The recent World Bank report "Anticorruption in Transition: Confronting the Challenge of State Capture" has usefully distinguished between state capture and administrative corruption. "State capture" refers to the actions of individuals, groups or firms both in the public and private sectors to influence the formation of laws, regulations, decrees and other government policies to their own advantage as a result of the illegal transfer or concentration of private benefits to public officials." By contrast, "administrative corruption" refers to the intentional imposition of distortions in the prescribed implementation of existing laws, rules and regulations to provide advantages to either state or non-state actors as a result of the illegal transfer or concentration of private gains to public officials."

The "Voices of the Poor" study, carried out by the World Bank, found that the poor, in particular, often suffer "pervasive low-level corruption and lack of access to justice… Even humanitarian assistance is often waylaid when channeled through corrupt state systems."

In absence of hard data (in virtually all countries) on the connection between perceived corruption and low public respect for public servants, proxy measures can be helpful. Among these measures, as noted above, are citizens' views on service quality, their trust in public servants, and their perception of public servants' contributions to the well-being of society. While country-specific data of this kind are useful for diagnosing the reasons for low public respect for public servants, cross-national data also help to illuminate the diagnosis in individual states. For example, the 1990

World Values Surveys showed that 56 percent of Americans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the public service compared to 50 percent in France, 49 percent in Canada, 47 percent in Britain, 30 percent in Japan, and 27 percent in Italy. Other measures of public and business concern about state capture and administrative corruption can be found in investor risk ratings and in the World Business Environment Survey.

Improving perceptions of the public service                 

There is abundant anecdotal evidence that the public’s respect for government is eroded by political and bureaucratic corruption. Available evidence and common sense suggest that reducing official corruption can enhance respect for government. Canadian research concludes that citizens’ assessments of service quality are determined primarily by five factors: timeliness, knowledge and competence of staff, courtesy/comfort, fair treatment, and outcome. The Institute of Public Administration of Canada has developed these ideas through dialogue with public officials and community groups into a set of practical proposals for rebuilding trust in the public service. Initiatives to enhance public respect for public service are likely to enhance public servants’ respect for themselves, and are thus likely to improve their morale and performance.

Governments around the world have adopted new organizational forms and new management approaches, partly in the belief that improved performance in policymaking and service delivery will enhance the public's perception of government. The ability of the public service to perform at a level sufficient to enhance its public image depends significantly on the quality of its human resource management, especially in the areas of recruitment and retention, reward and recognition, and employee empowerment. The public's trust in public servants is likely to be higher if the public service is perceived to be non-partisan and professional rather than politicized.

Politicians often criticize publicly the performance of public servants; yet a high level of trust between politicians and public servants is essential to better public service performance through innovative and risk-taking behavior.

The public service faces a huge public relations challenge. Research indicates that most citizens are happy with their individual contacts with public servants, but that many of these citizens still have a negative view of the "bureaucracy" as a whole. Ways must be found to dispel the myths about the public service and to promote its successes. In particular, politicians, business people and the media must take the lead in developing collaborative arrangements that will help to restore and enhance public respect for the public service. These partnerships can also be invaluable to attract and keep high-quality employees, improve rewards and recognition for public servants (including proper compensation), encourage greater acceptance of innovation and responsible risk-taking, enhance politicians' appreciation for public employees, and help the media to understand the nature and challenges of public service.

Recommended websites:                                                        

Recommended readings: (general)                                 

Recommended readings: (public respect)                     

  • Haque, Shamsul. forthcoming (March 2001). "Pride and Performance in the Public Service: Three Asian Cases." International Review of Administrative Sciences 67(1).
  • Kamarck, Elaine C. 1998. "Why People Don't Trust Government and What It Means to Public Relations Professionals", speech presented October  19, 1998 in Boston at the International Conference of the Public Relations Society of America (Public Affairs & Government Section)
  • Kernaghan, Kenneth. 2000. "Rediscovering Public Service: Recognizingthe Value of an Essential Institution." Toronto: Institute of Public Administration of Canada.
  • Jenei, Gyorgy, and Gabor Zupko. forthcoming (March 2001). "Public Performance in a New Democratic State: The Hungarian Case." International Review of Administrative Sciences 67(1).
  • Olowu, Dele. forthcoming (March 2001). "Pride and Performance of African Public Services: An Analysis of Institutional Breakdown and Rebuilding Efforts in Nigeria and Uganda." International Review of Administrative Sciences 67(1).
  • Western Australia, Office of the Auditor General "Public Confidence in the Public Sector."

Recommended readings: (corruption and development)    

  • Elliott, Kimberly Ann, ed. 1997. Coruption and the Global Economy. Institute for International Economics.
  • Gray, Cheryl W. and Daniel Kaufmann. 1998. "Corruption and Development." In New Perspectives on Combating Corruption. Washington, D.C.: World Bank; Berlin: Transparency International.
  • Hope, Kempe R., and Bornwell C. Chikulo, eds. 1999. Corruption and Development in Africa: Lessons from Country Case Studies. St. Martin's Press.
  • Mauro, Paolo. 1996. "The Effects of Corruption on Growth, Investment,and Government Expenditure." IMF Working Paper WP/96/98. Policy Development and Review Dept., IMF, Washington, D.C.
  • Tanzi, Vito. 1995. "Corruption, Governmental Activities, and Markets." Finance and Development 32 (December): 24-26.
  • Robinson, Mark, ed. 1998. Corruption and Development. Frank Cass and Co.

This page was prepared by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. It was submitted on 9/5/00.


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