Keep the Cheaters Out

A new study shows that cheating as a student is a a good indicator of future corruption in the civil services. This is why screening for those jobs should not be based on ability alone.

It is common wisdom that civil servants often indulge in corrupt practices because it is difficult for central governments and citizens to monitor and subsequently implicate them for such conduct. (Olken and Pande, 2012.)

A new study by Rema Hanna and Shing-Yi Wang titled Dishonesty and Selection into Public Service: Evidence from India looks at this issue from another angle. They find that students in India who cheat on a simple laboratory task are more likely to prefer public sector jobs after graduation. They conduct a series of laboratory experiments with 669 students in their final year of college at seven different universities. The claim that cheating on the task they study predicts future corruption among civil servants.

Their findings are robust across abilities, and they conclude that a screening process that chooses applicants with better abilities would fail to change the propensity for corruption among them.

A counter-intuitive finding from this paper that should lay the ‘do-gooder’ reputation of civil servants to rest is that students who demonstrate pro-social preferences are less likely to prefer government jobs. This implies that those who care less about resources going to the poor and are less altruistic would be more interested in applying to government service than the private sector.

The study also confirms a well accepted conjecture that high-ability individuals who apply for public service jobs also seek non-wage benefits such as bribes or utility from public service in the government.

The State of the Indian Civil Services

According to a World Bank report that measures governments’ performance, the quality of a country’s civil service, its independence from political pressure, and the quality of policy formulation and implementation, India’s performance is unexceptional. The 2014 report places India in the forty-fifth percentile globally. According to an article in the Hindu, the global financial giant Goldman Sachs estimates that if India makes efforts to reform its civil services and converge to the Asian average on government effectiveness, it could add 0.9 percentage points annually to per capita GDP. The quality of a country’s institutions has been often proven as the fundamental cause contributing to its long term economic growth. (Acemoglu et al 2005.)

Potential Reforms

India screens its civil services applicants primarily through cognitive ability. The authors suggest that screening for honesty, ethics and pro-social behaviour can be an additional tool in the arsenal to fight corruption. They say that, if these additional screening tools are incorporated into existing screening methods, it could be a low-cost and efficient way of bringing about reform.

Another potential reform is allowing lateral entry into civil services. As a recent Mint editorial highlighting the need for lateral entry mentions, this move will not be new to India, as domain experts such as Nandan Nilekani, Arvind Subramanian and Raghuram Rajan have been previously brought in to run government organisations.

Public Choice Economists would not be surprised by the outcomes of this study. They assume that bureaucrats are rational agents who maximise their interests first, with providing services for others being a by-product. Bureaucracies, according to William Niskanen, an economist, are hierarchies that are not subject to market discipline. Using the framework of James Buchanan’s seminal work about rules-based governance, it is possible to come up with reforms that are workable with self-serving motivations of bureaucrats. The Indian government should reshape the recruitment and promotion system, improve performance-based assessment of individual officers, and design safeguards that nurture accountability while protecting bureaucrats from political interference.

Milan Vaishnav and Saksham Khosla find in ‘The Indian Administrative Service Meets Big Data’, a 2016 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace paper, that officers deemed unfit for further service at certain career benchmarks should be mandated to retire through a transparent and uniform performance review mechanism. There might be instances of governments taking such measures, but they shall remain arbitrary and politically motivated until they are institutionalised.

Such merit-based incentives which leave minimal room for rent seeking and fraudulent practices will discourage and weed out those candidates who wish to take up public sector jobs for all the wrong reasons.

About the author

Archit Puri

Archit Puri is a public policy researcher, freelance writer, former social entrepreneur, psychology enthusiast and tired of labels. He slogs as a Senior Associate at the Centre for Civil Society to fund his daily bread. He tweets @bantofu