Using Behavioral Science to Reduce Corruption Within Mexico’s Public Service: An Innovative Way to Fight Corruption
This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)
Corruption in Mexico is a daunting problem that negatively affects the lives of millions, despite the growing expenditure in fighting it. UCEx’s evidence-based innovation is an alternative solution resulted from a rigorous field experiment. It used behaviorally informed-messages sent to 157,586 real public officials to increase the reports of gifts they receive and may pose a conflict of interest.This intervention puts “a foot on the door” towards the long path of controlling corruption.
Mexican families consume, on average, 14% of their income in corruption and it is perceived as one of the most pressing public problems. Transparency International ranked Mexico 1st place in the Latin American and Caribbean Region for the highest percentage of population that has had to pay a bribe for a public servant. Bribes can take the form of gifts for public servants and the Mexican law requires them to report and deliver any gift over 35 USD to the Ministry of Public Service (MPS) to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
The current approach to fight corruption focuses on increasing the resources, human and monetary, dedicated to supervising, punishing, and diminishing corruption benefits. It assumes individuals behave fully rationally and has been insufficient to make public officials comply with the law: between 2012 and 2017, on average, only 22 federal public servants (out of more than 150,00) reported receiving a gift.
This is why, exploring new perspectives in the complex path towards controlling corruption, the Unit of Innovation, Behavior and Experimentation (UCEx), from Mexico’s National Laboratory of Public Policy (LNPP), decided to “put a foot on the door” and take the chance of making a small change in the real world with potentially big outcomes. UCEx formed an alliance with the public sector’s MPS and focused on gift reports because it is not a highly sensitive topic, as other corruption-related issues that are much harder to even approach, let alone to transform.
UCEx designed and implemented an enhancement and mission–oriented innovation that builds upon existing structures and regulations to achieve greater effectiveness and efficiency, aiming for the clear outcome of making public servants behave ethically. The intervention was based on a rigorous field experiment that tried five types of behaviorally informed messages that tapped into different psychological shortcomings that prevent people from acting ethically and go beyond mere utility calculations:
1) The importance of law compliance: a simplified description of the required actions and clearly stated what is mandatory by law (if individuals know what they have to do and how to do it, they will do it).
2) Social norms: It stated the number of public servants that reports the gifts they receive to the MPS (humans tend to act according to what is acceptable in their social group).
3) The moral norms: This message recognises the honesty of the public servants and invite them to show it.
4) The impact of gifts on impartiality: It pointed out the fact that receiving a gift can affect the official’s impartiality (people has limited awareness of the implications of their [un]ethical actions, but if they become aware of them, they will behave more ethically).
5) The possibility of being sanctioned and reported by someone else: It stated the possibility of being sanctioned due to violation of the law and the possibility of whistleblowing.
To discern what kind of message could cause a bigger change in behavior, and to inquire if the frequency of messages sent could also impact the compliance, UCEx implemented a randomized control trial, where a total of 157,586 federal government officials were assigned to one of 13 groups (four treatment groups with three varying levels of intensity in the number of emails each group received, plus one control group that received no message). The messages were sent through 998,030 emails: all were personalized and included a simple Word format attached to elaborate a report if they needed to. The experiment took place from December 13th 2016 to February 28th 2017. The message that appealed to the importance of law compliance had the bigger impact in all outcomes measured. The number of individuals reporting gifts was higher in every treatment group than in the control group (which was zero). The total of gifts reported was 438, and, although it was slightly smaller than the previous year (445), the total number of individuals reporting gifts, the main outcome, was higher (22 v. 72).
Although the results seem small in magnitude, they are big in their significance, given the level of normalization of corruption within the public sector and the lack of awareness of the potential effects that a gift can have on public servants impartiality. The MPS benefited from this intervention because, today, they use an innovative tool to strengthen the compliance with a rule they enforce and they also have a new understanding of the reasons why public servants may behave unethically. The public officials in the federal government now have better information and tools to fulfill their obligations. UCEx currently explores the use of similar interventions for other important institutions, public and private. Also, this can be a first step to have a stigma-free understanding of the causes of dishonesty and create new strategies to control corruption starting with small steps.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The current approach to control corruption is costly and insufficient. UCEx’s evidence-based, cost-effective innovation builds upon current rules and institutions, using a behavioral perspective to understand and fight dishonesty:
1) At the same time, honesty is regulated by the maximization of individual utility and the need to preserve an honest self-concept.
2) It is easier to cheat when individuals cheat “a little” and can rationalize it, and when the impact of dishonesty is not direct, like taking a gift instead of money.
3) The human mental bandwidth is limited and can result in a “blind spot” where lack of awareness facilitates dishonesty.
4) Individuals tend to cheat more when it seems socially acceptable in their groups and contexts.
UCEx proved that behaviorally-informed messages increased officials’ compliance. It is a first step towards controlling more complex types of corruption and these behavioral insights are being applied in interventions with other institutions.
What is the current status of your innovation?
We could already measure the effect of behaviorally informed messages. Currently, recommendations resulted from the intervention are used within the MPS, like improvements to the process of reception of gifts and to the filling of simpler formats. Right now, UCEx is applying behavioral insights to increase honesty and compliance with the law within National Security institutions and one of the most important private companies in Mexico. This intervention can also be the basis of future qualitative and quantitative research and public policies aimed to tackle public servants unethical acts.
Collaborations & Partnerships
UCEx brought the research work, necessary to design the behaviorally informed field experiment, implement it, and to evaluate the results obtained
The Ministry of Public Service provided support and guidance, as well as the databases with public servants data, all necessary for the design and implementation
The Public Service Officials across all the federal agencies were subject of the intervention and their voluntary collaboration was fundamental attain the results
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Public servants can behave more ethically thanks to the reduction of cognitive barriers they face, systematization of information, and simplification of processes. The MPS now has a new perspective to approach unethical behavior and learned about the importance of experimenting in policy making and cooperating hand-in-hand with an academic institution. UCEx main goal is to improve individual’s lives and this was a unique opportunity to create cost-effective and impactful solutions for corruption.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The number of individuals reporting gifts was higher in every treatment group than in the control group (which number was zero). The total of gifts reported was 438, and, although it was smaller than the previous year (445), the total number of individuals reporting gifts, the main outcome, was higher (22 v. 72).The message 1, Appealing to the importance of law compliance, had the bigger impact in the main outcome (17 of 72 public servants reporting) and in all other three complementary outcomes: number of gifts reported (99 out of 438), the total amount of the gifts reported (16,000 USD of 28,919 USD), and the total number of emails replying to the original messages (82 out of 270). This means that, usually, public servants do not report the gifts they receive out of ignorance and not a selfish, deliberate decision-making process. We learned that simple reminders about the law have an important effect and that there are corruption-related problems with unexpectedly simple solution
Challenges and Failures
It was also challenging to find a strategic ally within the government that would be willing to support the research, cooperate, and implement the recommendations resulted from the study.
There were complications in putting together a reliable database that comprised the information of all the 157,586 public servants in the federal government, since the Ministry of Public Service did not have a unique database, but multiple databases from different institutions.
Technology also fails sometimes and the automatic service to send the total of 998,030, presented some problems that limited obtaining reliable results to measure the effect of frequency of emails received on the total number of officials reporting gifts. This implied that the initial methodology had to be adapted.
Conditions for Success
Strategic ally inside the government: Cooperation by the head of the offices involved in the intervention
A complete, up-to-date record of public officials information (ID, names, emails)
A legal requirement for public officials to report and delivery gifts to the authorities
Technology to send and manage the amount of emails necessary for the intervention
The necessary, rigorous research on behavioral economics-behavioral sciences to inform alternative solutions to a problem like corruption
An applied-research unit that believes in the importance of designing solutions for public problems and with institutional liaison capabilities to form solid alliances with government institutions
Sponsorship to make any necessary assessment of the contexts and conditions where the intervention will be placed
The public need and commitment to control corruption
This intervention has the potential to become a national public policy for different subjects because of its efficacy and cost-effectiveness. UCEx aims to repeat the exercise using only the messages that proved to be more successful in the federal government context and can explore the replication of the experiment in other levels of government (state or municipal), other public institutions, like some related to National Security, and in one of the most important private companies in Mexico. This, to find ways to increase ethical behavior in multiple contexts and continue the path towards controlling corruption in wider, more complex environments.
One of the most inspiring lessons was to learn that it is actually possible to innovate within the public sector, usually one of the hardest areas to propose and implement new ways to do the job. The alliance between innovative laboratories and public or private institutions can lead us to have a better understanding and improve the lives of a wider number of people. In the process, everybody learns and the potential for future cooperation increases. This is an alternative to the usual implementation of policies: by experimenting, we can pilot a policy first, go back, tweak it, and maybe try it again before extensively implementing it. We showed this to the government institutions and it opened the door for future similar interventions. In the words of behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan, “[e]xperimentation is an act of humility, an acknowledgment that there is simply no way of knowing without trying something different.”
We could understand the power of behavioral sciences to contribute with useful insights that could help us solve multiple interrelated problems in different countries, such as corruption, poverty, and crime. This intervention helped us comprehend dishonesty from a perspective that reduces the stigma attached to corruption matters and individuals behaving unethically. Turns out, these behaviors may not be rooted in a selfish and corrupt nature or in malicious intentions. They may be rooted in cognitive barriers that public officials face in order to comply with the law.
The process was not EAST: Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely (term created by the Behavioral Insights Team in the UK) and, therefore, it was very unlikely that the public officials were going to comply. After simplifying the process, making it socially acceptable, and giving timely reminders, the number of officials reporting gifts increased. And it only took some carefully designed messages sent through an email. Small changes can have great, significant effects.
At UCEx, we are currently applying behavioral insights to promote honesty and ethical behavior within National Security institutions and within one of the most influential private companies in Mexico.
UCEx is also currently working on other pressing issues for Mexico and Latin America, such as gender discrimination. In a partnership with the World Bank, we are exploring alternative ways to increase the participation of indigenous women living in disadvantaged rural areas in programs that aim to foster environmentally sustainable productive activities.
Also, we are looking forward to forming new alliances world wide to continue with our mission of applying behavioral sciences for the betterment of people’s lives. We know that the OECD can be a great platform to enhance our capabilities of impact and to match our mission with other potential allies that share it and want to nudge for the good with us.