Posted on August 03, 2015


This work studies retail corruption in the context of the public services and attempts to provide structural remedies to improve service delivery and tackle corruption festering within the sector.  

To understand the nature of this corruption (defined by the World Bank as “the abuse of public office for private gains”) and its relationship with poor service delivery, it is primary to understand the rationale behind an official’s voluntary involvement in such acts. For this, we may look to Becker’s Crime and Punishment model (1968). According to this model, a criminal is a rational individual whose decision to partake in an illegal activity is based on a cost-benefit analysis wherein he compares the gains arising from illegal behavior against those arising from legal behavior and also the benefits accruing from criminal activities against the cost of possible detection and punishment.

Thus, when we observe corruption under the scope of this model, we come to the following conclusions

  1. “comparing the utility arising out of both legal and illegal activities”:

The public servants partake in corrupt activities as it provides for a source of larger profits than what can be aggregated through legitimate sources. These legitimate sources would include government wages, pensions and promotions. In terms of retail corruption, this margin for gains is catalyzed by the citizen’s willingness to pay. This willingness may either be for the provision of some benefits or to escape delays, red-tape and harassment. Here, the phenomenon of learned helplessness plays a key role by virtue of which the individual is blinded into believing that there is no way to get work done without paying bribes and, as a result, willingly pays bribes even if he/she may morally be against such payments.

  1. “by comparing the value of potential gain from a wrongful activity to the cost of being caught and punished for that act”:

The chances of being detected for corrupt practice are low as a result of legal loopholes and dilatory anti-corruption efforts which allow easy evasion of conviction. Further, the idea that corruption in the public services is an established culture (particularly in developing and under developed countries) gives rise to path dependence by which a servant is pressured into accepting bribes from both above and below in the bureaucratic hierarchy. This consequently has a spillover effect meaning individuals (such as touts) who previously had no scope for making profits also begin churning profits. A police system that is defunct by nature further reduces the chances of detection and punishment.


According to the Council of Europe’s Multidisciplinary Group of Ministers, service corruption may be structurally defined as the sum of monopoly over power, the power to take decisions in discretion and the lack of accountability. This definition highlights the existence of certain systemic problems that ail service delivery across sectors. These overarching issues foment opportunities for corruption in the provision of public services. The scale and depth of this corruption in the services leads to a spiraling effect whereby the systemic defects give rise to greater opportunity for corruption which in turn facilitates the deepening of the defects and so on. A two-pronged initiative to clean up the service sectors while simultaneously tackling corruption is therefore imperative.

This section looks at possible instruments to service delivery. Notable amongst these are:

  1. Decentralization,
  2. Cultivating political support to bolster program delivery,
  3. Enhancing accountability.


  1. Decentralization:

Decentralization includes political, fiscal and administrative autonomy that is thrust onto to the people through shifting control to more localized levels. This means that local, directly elected governments are empowered to hire and fire local staff without any reference to higher levels of government and possess complete autonomy in the spheres of taxing and expenditure.

Due to the closer linkage between such directly elected local governments and the people, the officials tend to act in a more accountable manner. Meanwhile, fiscal control that is provided to them ensures that they spend public money prudently as they face the real possibility of being voted out of office if the public are dissatisfied. In comparison, with centralization, votes are partly on the basis of performance in other regions and on issues of national interest. As a result, accountability is defused and potential for corruption increases.

Apart from accountability, a decentralized system allows for greater transparency of government machinery and helps to tackle the nascent culture of bureaucratic elitism. This rectifies the existent dissociation of civil servants from the rest of society and provides greater public access to policies and measures taken by the authorities.

From the aspect of service delivery, we may also argue that decentralization provides more far-reaching and cost-effective implementations of programs by using superior access of local governments to information on local costs and needs. Service delivery can also be seen to improve as a result of political decentralization as the idea of being directly elected by the people gives rise to competition for political office which opens the door for responsible and innovative leadership which in turn becomes the driving force behind capacity building, improved service delivery and reduced corruption at the local level.

Decentralization is best enforced through devolution as opposed to de-concentration or deregulation. Under devolution, there is a transfer of authority to quasi-autonomous units of local government. This model will particularly yield benefits in countries with large rural populations as allows for self-rule at the village level through local bodies and break the existing government monopoly over services. Considering that those in charge work for themselves or their own societies, there is greater efficiency in provision of services due to the involvement of personal stakes.

Such distribution of power does come with its own problems. First, it may act counter-productive and provide increased opportunities for bribery. Such argument is logically premised on the idea that a unitary predatory government would set moderate bribe rates to ensure that they are able to make illegal revenue while ensuring that the firms and citizens are not discouraged from productive activities. The advent of vertical competition through decentralization however automatically generates multiple layers of officials who do not work in sync and may consequently lead to raised bribe rates. Such arguments are furthered by papers such as Treisman (1999, 2000) that indicate that federal systems have higher corruption ratings as opposed to unitary systems.

Although this is indeed a real possibility, it is important to note that administrative decentralization results in a reduction in the amount of control that higher-level governments have over lower-level administrations. This lowers the expected gains from corruption since the number of individuals who are practically in charge of a single decision is reduced. Thus, decentralization brings down the quantum of large-scale bribes at the cost of a potential immediate hike in petty corruption. With sustained accountability and transparency though, this too may be eliminated.

Second, there is issue of increased inefficiency in the services due to incapability of the local bodies to satisfactorily govern. This may be corrected by simultaneous programs focusing on capacity building at the local level.

Third, it may be argued that decentralizing the governing structure shall not necessarily yield greater efficiency from services as the service providers do not necessarily change under such circumstances and it is only the governing body that differs. Here, we may note that with change in the administration, there is also a greater incentive to ensure the proper provision of services to the community as a result of the creation of the possibility of social castigation by the public if they provide for poor services and utilities. Thus, if the service providers do not yield desired results, the local administration – with its new autonomy - will simply discharge them from service and reinstate new providers. This fear of being recalled for poor service delivery shall also induce the providers to act more efficiently under the decentralized system.


Decentralization across Ethiopia provided for expansion of the delivery of education and health services. The process of decentralization in Ethiopia can be traced over two major waves. The first wave that lasted from 1991-1994 marked devolution of state power to geographically defined groups and regional or district councils (‘woreda’). This devolution provided the local bodies with a range of executive, legislative and judicial powers within their specified regions. The second wave that began in 1995 marked an increased amount of responsibility and control that was provided to the local bodies which culminated in 2002 when the woreda were expected to completely take over service delivery using the block grants that they received from their respective regional governments. Thus, while the federal authorities retained authority over settling policies and standards for the major service sectors, the woredas were placed in charge of ensuring service delivery within their regions. This reform produced results across multiple sectors and enabled Ethiopia in making significant progress to achieving the Millenium Development Goals. Decentralization helped in reducing poverty, increased the net enrolments in education, increased the access to basic health services and allowed for greater agricultural productivity.

Very simply, the increased and newly streamlined expenditure on salaries and wages for teachers and the health and agriculture sector workers under the woredas enabled the hiring of a greater number of teachers, health and agricultural workers giving rise to increased net enrollment ratio, pupil-teacher ratio, the number of children vaccinated, agricultural yields and the number of people using contraception.                    


Decentralization has great potential for yielding results. Any such program must however be backed by legal regulations to ensure the smooth functioning. The law must provide a framework which clarifies the modes that are being adopted as legitimate vehicles for decentralization and also elucidate on the functions and the financing of such modes. To prevent failure of decentralization schemes, such measures must also be well-designed and sequenced so as to address pre-existing local conditions and inequalities.

  1. Cultivating political support to bolster program delivery:

Political support refers to backing of program delivery by politicians both individually and through their parties. This particular tool is valuable because once the program garners political support it shall enjoy sustained state supervision in its working. Such support ensures continued flow of resources – both financial and administrative – to the planning and execution of these programs and shall provide for a greater degree of autonomy to those driving the programs thereby eliminating red-tape revolving around program initialization.

There tends to exist, an unfavourable political equilibrium between politicians and the service providers. While the service providers promise electoral favours to the parties, parties in return promise to retain the service providers under their reign despite poor delivery of functions. Due to the benefits accruing to either side from their existing relationship, there is a force of inertia at play that attempts to resist change of any form. This trend is particularly visible in under-developed and developing countries. Here, elected politicians are far more concerned with patronage from a few or with the provision of favours targeted at some privileged groups as opposed to provision of public services or goods that would benefit the citizens as a whole. In this process, what is generally observed is that the larger sections of the populations in these countries – those who are economically or socially disadvantaged – suffer the most.

Theoretically, this may be explained based on an understanding of the demand group, i.e. the citizens, within these countries. Considering the extreme disparities between the social groups in such countries, it may be understood that not all sections of society have equal access to acquiring knowledge about party policies due to limited education and poorly functioning social services and local bodies. As a result of this, a situation of assymetric information exists which the political parties tend to exploit to their benefit. Since political parties essentially run with the objective of electoral success, they tend to favour or select that group which shall better identify the party with the policy as also those sections of societies that will vote or provide campaign money in return for favourable policies. In extension to this, the nature of the policies that different sections require also plays a key role. While those lower down require basic services and provision of utilities and facilities, those higher above require more nuanced policies to best suit their needs. While the former type of provisions is generally harder to trace to any individual party’s efforts, the latter group allows for the party to best showcase its own initiatives. This means that through adverse selection, the parties tend to place the upper sections of society over those lower down and reject citizen’s needs over the wants of the elite. The poor meanwhile continue to vote for the incumbents due to moral hazard caused by faith of the upper sections in the respective parties and propaganda.

It has been noted (Zahid Hasnain, World Bank Report, 2005) that this particular phenomenon may however vary with three very crucial factors that define a party: fragmentation, factionalization and polarization.

Fragmentation refers to the number of political parties that possess dominant competitive positions within the party system. Factionalism measures the internal cohesion within the political parties and finally, polarization refers to the degree of ethnic divide among political parties. The higher the levels of each of the three determinants, the greater are the incentives for patronage and poorer is the quality of service delivery. Party fragmentation increases the informational demands on voters since there are many more candidates and therefore, many more messages that voters have to evaluate during election time. When political parties are highly factionalized they do not provide their members stable career prospects, and politicians have a relatively greater incentive to focus on targeted goods so as to build a personal reputation that they can carry across party lines. Finally, in highly polarized party systems, the provision of public goods provides less political benefits as different ethnic groups have different preferences over, and cannot agree on, the public goods to be provided.


In South India, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are states that enjoyed similar levels of economic growth and development up to the 1980s. However, from the 1980s onwards, Tamil Nadu pulled forward and has done significantly better than Karnataka on all fronts of human development. While Tamil Nadu shifted from the 7th to the 3rd most developed state in the country over three decades starting from the 1980s, Karnataka was only able to maintain a steady rank of 7th.    

This discrepancy in results despite similar levels of expenditure in both states between 1980 and 2000 may be attributed to the role played by the government in terms of fashioning favourable public policies and interventions to boost human development.  

In this aspect, Tamil Nadu displays greater success through sustained state action on a variety of programmatic fronts starting from the late 1960’s. In 1967, a regional party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) took power in Tamil Nadu adopting the welfarist ideology of its founder – the political leader ‘Periyar’ Ramaswamy. Although the DMK later split into Karunanidhi’ s DMK and M.G. Ramachandran’ s All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIDMK), both parties drew their inspiration from Ramaswamy’s Dravidian thought. As a result, both parties were permeated with ideas that emphasized social welfarism and empowerment.

While in power, both the AIDMK and the DMK enjoyed comfortable majorities and possessed disciplined party cadres. Both parties also shared a consensus on social policy, even as rivals at the polls. This made it politically possible to translate welfarist beliefs into programmatic action in ways that would not be easily imaginable in more chaotic political contexts. This commitment to implementing party ideology was the product of a perception by the two Dravidian parties that social programs would bring electoral returns. This support in the form of a bipartisan consensus provided a crucial impetus for Tamil Nadu’s civil service to design and implement a range of inter-locking programs to improve human development outcomes in the state beyond what could have been expected by economic growth alone.

In contrast, Karnataka’s political parties in general did not seek to mobilize political support by pursuing welfarist policies. This is evident from the delayed introduction of overdue social welfare programs and persistent neglect of the state’s more backward northern districts where female literacy rates, health and school infrastructure and infant and child mortality rates remain a cause for concern.

Thus, the political support was a key factor in why Tamil Nadu outperformed Karnataka in terms of provision of basic public services and utilities to the people. This study also helps to verify the aforementioned conclusion that greater political support is mobilized with a corresponding lower level of fragmentation, factionalization and polarization within the party system.


Although this explanation makes sense theoretically, practically, it is impossible to control any of the three factors (fragmentation, factionalization and polarization) as these are largely dependent on the societal composition and related factors that tend to vary with each country or state.

A perfect example of this is India wherein the multitude of diversity along linguistic, regionalist and ethnic lines necessitates the need for a multi-party system at the state level to ensure that the best interests of all sections are represented and realized. Advocating the benefits of a bipartite system in such countries will hardly bring reforms as multiple parties are essential for representation. Further, as polarization and factionalization are results of the constructs within each state, it is difficult to reduce either factor through any structural instruments.

Instead, what we may conclude is that electoral reform is absolutely essential. The law must ensure that there is proper implementation of transparent campaign finance regimes and that there is a ceiling on the amount that can be spent on campaigns. It is also suggested that the voter may induce the best results from the political competition by voting on the basis of party ideology and electoral promises as opposed to voting based on religious or ethnic lines.

1. Enhancing accountability:

This particular instrument aims at addressing lacuna in service delivery by enhancing the accountability of the public servants and all service providers to the people. A perusal of the pitfalls that are currently existent in accountability lead us to the following key areas that need to be addressed: premature transfers of civil servants and opaque administrative practices.

  1. PREMATURE TRANSFERS: The issue of premature transfers is one that seriously affects accountability. Firstly, the premature transfers undermine service delivery because managers are often not able to stay in place for long enough to institute or sustain reforms. In addition to this, short tenures make it impossible to hold officers accountable for their performance.


More than 350 reports on Indian administrative reforms, over the past six decades, have uniformly pointed out that premature and untimely transfers are the main cause for poor administration. A recent study indicated that on an average, district magistrates spent only seven months in their posts and the average SP only five months. Within this time, the officer usually comes across the local mafias that operate in the district. If the officer starts taking interest in getting to know the modus operandi and the persona of a particular mafia, the chance of exposure goes up sharply. Typically, this is followed by cautioning the officer, and, further, transfers. A lot of the time, officials may also be threatened by such gangs causing them to either ignore the illegal proceedings around them or to turn into accomplices. Consequently, services available to the public tend to falter in efficiency as districts get inexperienced officers every few months, affecting the quality of administration.

To some extent, it may even be held that the citizen’s fundamental right to life under Article 21 is affected; this was the basis of the landmark Supreme Court order of October 2013 that every post should have a minimum tenure fixed, and reasons for premature transfers recorded in detail. The same order specifies that postings and transfers are to be done in a proper and scientific manner by a formal Civil Service Board (CSB).  Further, a report from the potential transferee shall also be obtained regarding a personal statement on the purported reason behind transfer.

The state of Karnataka has also taken some individual steps such as placing a quantitative ceiling on transfers that may be allowed per year and also introduction of a database to track the transfers. These measures may be implemented across all states to provide significant improvements to status quo.                        

  1. OPAQUE ADMINISTRATION: Improving access to information is a vital part of any strategy designed to empower clients in relation to providers and the government. There are a number of ways to enable a higher degree of transparency within the system.  Firstly, there must be popular access to information relating to local level public works. Second, stricter implementation of the acts designed to enabling public access to government information across states and the simultaneous working of NGOs to ensure that issues that citizens may face but lack the wherewithal to address are also taken care of. Further, strengthening of the role of anti-corruption agencies and the bolstering or introducing (as may be the case) of an ombudsman of the may also help. Thirdly, there must be sound provisions in place to protect people who might act as whistleblowers such as the Whistleblowers Protection Act of 1989 of the United States. Finally, citizen’s charters may also be used to improve access to information and empower the citizens to ensure efficiency and clarity in the services.


  1. India

Public Interest Litigations (PILs) are also be used by society to activate judicial remedies when the services fail to work properly. Using this powerful tool, the Supreme Court has intervened in matters as diverse as solid waste management, cleaning up the air in Indian cities, and compelling candidates for elective office to disclose information about their backgrounds to the electorate. This intervention has clearly helped put pressure on the executive to improve the quality of service delivery in many sectors.

The states of Rajasthan and Delhi took the idea of protecting public interest a step further by introducing the use of public hearings to examine documents relating to public works (e.g., muster rolls, completion certificates, PDS stock registers) and to look into any matters regarding discrepancy or wrongful use of office by a servant. Such public hearings proved to have a massive deterrent effect particularly once it had been implemented at the lowest local levels. The move helped to discourage malfeasance because the public hearings meant that the illegal act, if caught, would expose the official to social rebuke in a circle within which he would be very well known. Fearing this civic pressure, most officials would instead choose to perform their functions correctly.

  1. Peru

Report cards to track performance records of various sectors is also a plausible solution. In Latin America, Peru was the first country to use report cards to assess its national health, education, nutrition, and employment programs, and Bogota became the first city in the region to introduce report cards under its ‘Como Vanzos?’ initiative.

Report cards essentially consider the public’s satisfaction with various services and ask them to evaluate each of these departments through these cards. This measure is doubly effective as they indicate to the public the state of various public service departments based on various pre-determined parameters and also prod agencies into pressuring the politicians into action.

  1. Comparative analysis of legal systems in the US and India

A comparison of the prosecution systems in the India and the US indicate that the government lawyers are far more corrupt as opposed to those of the West due to the absence and the failure of legal machinery to hold the lawyers accountable.

The American legal system provides for a grand jury system under which the selected jurors have relatively short tenures and are generally selected after ensuring that jurors haven’t been repeated. As a result, the jurors can be said to be usually devoid of links to the prosecutors and any other influential elements. The largest advantage this provides is that the prosecutors are automatically made more responsible. Further, these prosecutors also largely elected and those appointed are selected through a decentralized and broad-based system under which the mayor may elect a lawyer on the advice of the municipal councilors. The citizens are also empowered to recall prosecutors if they are not satisfied with his/her performance which acts as another important tool providing for accountability of the government lawyers.

In comparison, India lacks the grand jury system. Here prosecutors are usually supervised by the District Collector, the Law minister and senior officials of the Law Ministry offices. Since the Indian government lawyers are generally appointed through a centralized system and enjoy long tenures, this vertical supervision is not particularly effective as such official relationships are usually heavily influenced by nexuses. 

 The role of E-governance in bringing about accountability:

E-government or the use of information technology by government agencies can also be used to improve the government’s interactions with citizens and service providers and enhance intragovernmental and intergovernmental exchange. Thus, local governments can function more effectively and productively by digitizing existing government processes and thereby improve service delivery. Such process may also help in eliminating unnecessary positions or duties of public officials and thus pre-emptively limit any opportunities for paying a bribe.

The transfer of primary school teachers, a critical public policy issue in South Asia, significantly affects service delivery to rural people. Because demand for transfers is significantly higher than available opportunities, bad governance and influence play important roles in the decision-making. Transfer orders often contradict each other, teachers are disgruntled, and the needs of poor people are often sacrificed. In two Indian states—Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh—governments implemented a computer-aided system that identifies surplus posts and teachers as well as schools with teacher shortages, publishes a database of all openings, and helps to make a decision. This citizen-centric e-government innovation has improved information and introduced transparency, openness, fairness, and rationalization into government decision making.

Other evidence shows that e-government can improve land administration as well. Karnataka computerized more than 20 million records of landownership for 6.7 million farmers. Introducing e-government helped modernize the entire process of keeping records of rights tenancy and crops by eliminating the delays, harassment, and bribery that had been widespread. Now farmers can obtain a printed copy of an online land record for Rs. 15 (US$0.32) at computerized land record kiosks in more than 140 offices around the state.


It is important to note that corruption within the public services is a consequence of more deep-seated problems of policy distortion, institutional incentives and governance. It thus cannot be addressed by simple legal acts proscribing corruption. Particularly in countries with rampant service corruption, the rule of law is fragile and can be turned around to favour corrupt interests. Corruption has found acceptance in the social psyche and behaviourism, It can therefore be even said to some extent that the corrupt politician or the administration is a construct by the public.

The strategy to reform the public services and through that, limit avenues of corruption, must involve popular support as well to ensure full success. For example, a shift of strategy by the Lokayukta in Karnataka towards high-profile raids and investigations into corruption scandals ranging over issues from the state of public hospitals to drug procurement to corruption in municipal agencies mobilized public opinion. Due to the renewed public interest and involvement in the issue, the government was forced to take at least some steps to reform the system and thus helping to plug in some of the holes in the system.

The easiest method to do so is through incentivizing the public to demand reforms in the public services through educating them on possible gains or through raising their own stakes. A good example of such attempts can be traced to Latin America. Both Columbia and Chile have, for example, introduced school voucher programs that effectively obliged schools to compete on the basis of quality to attract students vested with the power of choice. Latin America has also experimented with cash transfers to poorer households conditional on children’s school or clinic attendance. A typical example of this was Mexico’s ‘Progresa’ program.

Finally, the role of the media cannot be ignored in this aspect. The media can be harnessed to provide added pressure to ensure that political parties and service providers do not get away with unfair or illegal practices and can also be used to help NGOs raise awareness amongst citizens about their rights and their ability to participate in programs aimed at tackling gaps in the service provision.

The ‘Zero Rupee Note’ initiative (ZRN) was spearheaded by NGO 5th Pillar based on the idea that transforming social norms is the key to fighting petty corruption. This project distributed valueless ‘zero rupee’ notes amongst the public and also educated them on the impacts of corruption on the democratic economy, their rights and alternatives to paying bribes.

This movement introduced in Chennai in 2007 showed remarkable success in tackling petty corruption and was then introduced across other states and has also been introduced in countries like Ghana, Benin, Mexico and Nepal. By August 2014, over 2.5 million such notes were in circulation. The success of this project shows that public involvement in the form of open resistance and condemnation to and against corruption is instrumental in bringing about a change.


The public services sector is ailed by a number of systemic issues that feed both into and from corruption within these sectors. Thus, any attempt to reform the sector must also consider the extent of corruption prevalent and simultaneously attempt to address this. It is suggested based on analysis of given case studies that all attempts to use the listed instruments must be based on understanding the situation within the respective sector and the country. Finally, public support and interest must be mobilized for sustained results.

AISHWARYA SURESH NAIR is a 1st year student at NLIU Bhopal. She interned with Janaagraha's Advocacy team.