Guardians of accountability: A field experiment on corruption and inefficiency in local public works

Project Active from to Cities

Corruption affects the building of public infrastructure across Peru’s districts. According to news sources, funds that were earmarked for a bridge connecting Quiñota and Colquemarca were misallocated. In the municipality of Zaña, which is located in the northern highlands, the materials to build a sanitation plant were purchased at inflated prices. In Chucuito, a £300,000 laboratory was abandoned long before its completion—and, at the start of 2015, the country’s Office of the Comptroller General found another 339 projects in a similar state. These stalled projects represent a significant financial loss and risk undermining progress in key areas, such as education, transportation, and sanitation. Thus, in light of these risks and building on previous research, I am executing a randomised control trial (RCT) on anti-corruption monitoring.

The study builds on four core assumptions:

  • Corruption vulnerabilities exist where officials enjoy discretion over a government activity.
  • Official discretion can be reduced (or directed toward socially desirable ends) through effective monitoring.
  • Citizens do not have the time or the expertise required to properly monitor their government.
  • Because anti-corruption agencies face vast areas of responsibility and have but limited resources at their disposal, they are restricted in what they can monitor.

With these concerns in mind, I plan to test the extent to which an anti-corruption NGO, if armed with relevant information and supported by authorities with sanctioning capacity, can serve as the public’s delegate of accountability—or, viewed from a different angle, as an anti-corruption agency’s partner in accountability promotion.

Based on the RCT’s design, half of the urban and peri-urban governments in the sample will receive a targeted letter from the collaborating NGO warning that the progress of a set of public works under their charge will be closely monitored. These governments will also receive a letter from the Office of the Comptroller General noting that the anti-corruption agency is aware of the NGOs monitoring efforts. The other half of urban and peri-urban governments in the sample will serve as control.

Letters are expected to have a disciplinary effect on bureaucrats’ behaviour. If this expectation is met, then the RCT will result in the following outcomes:

  • A number of local governments in Peru will preserve a quantifiable amount of public funding that would have been lost to corruption.
  • The Office of the Comptroller General will obtain specific policy recommendations on how it can enhance its anti-corruption strategy, and it will also obtain reliable metrics on which districts are most vulnerable to corruption.
  • Anti-corruption watchdogs will obtain reliable metrics on the extent to which some of their current efforts impact government officials’ behavior; and
  • The academic community will benefit from the results of a randomised control trial that tests theories on corruption monitoring.