Using Behavioral Science to Reduce Corruption Within Mexico’s Public Service: An Innovative Way to Fight Corruption

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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.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

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.

Innovation Description

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Year: 2017
Level of government: National/Federal government


  • Implementation - making the innovation happen
  • Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
  • Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways

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