Dishonesty and selection into the government sector

By Paul Walker 02/03/2014


An often stated reason for going into the government service is to “do good”, in some sense. That is, people who enter the government sector are driven by high prosocial and ethical standards.

Or are they?

For India at least the answer may be no. Rema Hanna and Shing-Yi Wang have an NBER working paper where they look at Dishonesty and Selection into Public Service. The abstract reads,

In this paper, we demonstrate that university students who cheat on a simple task in a laboratory setting are more likely to state a preference for entering public service. Importantly, we also show that cheating on this task is predictive of corrupt behavior by real government workers, implying that this measure captures a meaningful propensity towards corruption. Students who demonstrate lower levels of prosocial preferences in the laboratory games are also more likely to prefer to enter the government, while outcomes on explicit, two-player games to measure cheating and attitudinal measures of corruption do not systematically predict job preferences. We find that a screening process that chooses the highest ability applicants would not alter the average propensity for corruption among the applicant pool. Our findings imply that differential selection into government may contribute, in part, to corruption. They also emphasize that screening characteristics other than ability may be useful in reducing corruption, but caution that more explicit measures may offer little predictive power.

The importance of these findings is that they demonstrate that the variation in the levels of observed corruption may, in part, be driven by who selects into government service, the more corrupt enter into the government sector. Hanna and Wang argue that there are two key policy insights that follow from their work. First, the recruitment and screening process for bureaucrats may be improved by increasing the emphasis on characteristics other than ability. So the brightest may not be the best. It is important to note that individuals may not want to reveal their characteristics, especially their propensity for dishonesty, so the method of measurement matters. The simple, experimental measure that Hanna and Wang employed predicted the corrupt behaviours of the government employees, but the game in which corruption was explicitly framed and the fairly standard attitudinal questions had little predictive value. Second, while recent empirical papers have shown that reducing the returns to corrupt behaviour decreases the probability that bureaucrats engage in corruption, the work by Hanna and Wang suggests that these interventions may have had even broader effects by changing the composition of who might apply.