How to Buy a Public Employee


“We need higher salaries so we’re not tempted to take bribes.”

This is appealing, but the idea that we can fight corruption by paying government employees more is not substantiated.  In fact, anecdotal evidence and the best research currently available suggest that increasing government salaries has no effect on bribe-taking behavior.

A few months ago I started a discussion in one of the professional groups for anticorruption professionals on the subject of Increasing Salaries as a Way to Fight Corruption.  The discussion was passionate and many comments were posted in multiple discussion fora.  I received some examples of why the “increasing salaries” argument fails.  For example:

“Putin quadrupled salaries in 2001. 

It had no effect.”

“In the ‘60’s, the University Di Tella, in Buenos Aires, developed a study concluding that the cause of the corruption in public officials were low salaries.  Then the government raised salaries but the corruption did not fall . . .”

Some of the professionals offered “traditional wisdom”:

“When you feed sharks, they rest for a while but soon after they are more powerful.”

“Absolute power (and money) corrupts absolutely.”

One of my colleagues discussed the complexities that gender issues introduce into the salaries question. (Click Here.) (and Here) And some commented on the virtues and/or vices of capitalism or other economic considerations.

A Difficult Subject

Wordle: How to Buy a Public Employee
How to Buy a Public Employee

The variations of the responses reflect the difficulty of this issue and the underlying problem – we do not yet have the data needed to address the question of salary levels and corruption.

The IMF tried to tackle this question in a 1997 Report:  Corruption and the Rate of Temptation:  Do Low Wages in the Civil Service Cause Corruption?  Caroline Van Rijckeghem and Beatrice Weder for the International Monetary Fund.

In attempting to determine whether low wages are related to corruption, the researchers developed an impressive cross tabulation of factors to be considered across a wide range of governments.

The researchers’ final analysis is complex.  However, it is clear that the data points away from the notion that anticorruption can be bought with higher salaries.

The authors conclude:

“There is some weak evidence against the fair wage hypothesis [i.e., fair wages prevent corruption] . . . Linear extrapolation indicates that quasi-eradication of corruption requires a relative wage of 3 – 7 times the manufacturing wage.  This magnitude is not consistent with the ‘fair wage-corruption’ hypothesis, unless civil servants have inflated opinions of their worth.  It is consistent with the shirking hypothesis, provided bribe levels are low and/or probabilities of detection are high.  . . .  This finding is not consistent with a fair wage hypothesis which predicts a positive relationship between the probability of detection and corruption.”

This matches observable behavior.  In many of the environments where I see this argument being raised, the corrupt officials are not just stealing to supplement their salaries; they are stealing the equivalent of their salaries many times over.

In We Can’t Fix Corruption – It’s Part of our Culture, over 150 comments were posted in LinkedIn and other discussion groups about observable change in the ethical behavior of societies.  While the discussion unveiled no “silver bullet” to change corrupt practices, most agreed that much more than law enforcement is necessary.   The change must encompass many aspects of living.  Including salary policy.

Salary Policy Development Needs

One thing the Van Rijckeghem Report struggles with – and is problematic globally – is the question of a livable wage.

One rational basis for increasing salaries for public servants is to provide a fair, livable wage commensurate with the value of their contribution to society.

Policy makers and politicians will too often raise the “need” for higher salaries in the absence of analytical data.  “Higher salaries to fight corruption” is merely accepted on the basis that good behavior can be purchased.

That idea is simply not supported by research.   Maybe at some point in the future it will be supported, but not today.

Salary policy must be linked directly to a country-specific determination of a livable wage.

Without questions, fair salaries should be paid to government employees as a matter of human rights – fair pay for fair work.  We all rely upon them for the successful operation of our civilizations and they should be paid accordingly.

As a matter of respect for their responsibilities we should examine such issues with the same level of care that we expect from public employees.

A proper examination of the costs of living in relation to the salaries of government officials should be undertaken as normal part of the salary policy development process.   We have seen that there are challenges in developing global “costs of living indexes” that make such indexes interesting but insufficient to develop salary policy in a specific society.   Policy makers need very specific information and the examination of costs of living must be specific to each society.

The notion that we can buy integrity from our people must be set aside in favor of rational analysis.

Brian Pinkowski

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9 thoughts on “How to Buy a Public Employee

  1. Let me add my little voice too!!!! Corruption in form of embeslement puts a huge chunk of tax payer and donor money in developing countries like Uganda into corrupt official’s Bank accounts and pockets.It is a shame that money like Global Fund US$300Mill.is said to have been taken by well paid officers with lots of fringe benefits! I think it is to do with renewing morals and social values ,accountability,law enforcement and not small salaries.By the way the more money one gets determines the spending rate, levels and wanting luxury.

  2. You are right as I had the opportunity to verify when the salaries are adapted to the level of life there is no corruption reduction. Corruption is more a question of Will and of personnal Ethics.
    Will means that I ever have to possibility of sollicitating or accepting bribe for dooing my job or, on the opposite side, if I have means enough, I ever try to offer bribe for a decision in my favor.
    Ethics means that in the contact between corrupter and corrupted, the corrupted can ever say “stop” and refuse corruption payement. In my last missions, I had more to speak on moral, ethics, deontology and responsibily than on the (well known) means to fight corruption.

    1. Mssr. Bueb, it does seem odd, as a logical matter, to think that people are paid for a job, but seem to require some extra “consideration” to do the job honestly.

      Ethical behavior, pro-survival behavior benefiting the widest circles of people – self, family, groups and community – seems to be beyond the intellectual grasp of many.

      For those, there is law enforcement.

      Sadly, some who might otherwise be ethical, are often trapped in poverty into handling immediate survival needs by any means necessary.

      Resolution of this tangle requires the ability to separate issues well enough to develop and implement sensible policies.

  3. I agree Brian, Increasing salaries won’t work by itself. The causes for such behavior must be addressed and people need to be educated on how harmful corruption is to them and others around them. Governments and goverments officials must be held accountable as well. A system must be put into place for example to allow people to report corruption without fear of persecution. Growing up I saw many people getting in trouble, loosing their jobs simply for reporting corrupt practices. They did not know that top officils are usually the “gang leaders.” As this continues wth time, they get involved. A man once said to me: ‘My salary is not enough to feed my children. And I still need money to pay the bribes at the doctor’s office. That money has to come from somewhere…Those who need my services have to pay extra money…Part of it is to make my boss look the other way, and another to take care of my family. What’s the point of reporting corruption and lose my job? My boss really like me because I give him money for his beer ….” Grassroots movements may be desirable in fighting corruption here. There must be some sort of incentives for those employees who reports corruption and those who do not take bribes.. How can one explain the fact that in Cameroon for example, most of the richest people are civil servants???

  4. Brian, Keep in mind that very well paid employees of private companies also take bribes and solicit kickbacks. Companies pay kickbacks to employees and managers of other companies as well as to government officials. In countries like Russia bribery or corporate employees is common, and certainly there are many instances of kickbacks in private business in the USA. And when illicit payments are made to government officials, they are very frequently – if not always – accompanied by private corruption, kickbacks and embezzlement. How much does salary matter in private sector corruption/conflict of interest/embezzlement?

  5. Brian,

    Isn’t it strange that the more simple explanations are often harder to accept. You are right, of course. Higher wages might result in attracting more qualified workers but not necessarily more honest ones. If corruption were tied to salaries, there would be less corruption where salaries are higher. Yet, corruption is easily found in board rooms and the offices of senior government officials.

    The simple answer, the “Structure – Conduct – Performance” paradigm, which states that structures that allow corruption will yield corruption, is overlooked. In environments in which government officials have been given monopolistic gatekeeper control, government officials, like any rent-seeking monopolist, will raise the price of the service. In his case, the only way to raise the price of access to a service/license/market is the bribe. In developed markets, such as the U.S., corruption is not less rampant because players enjoy higher incomes, it is because the government is not the sole regulator. In fact, it is viewed as the regulator of last resort. Other self-regulating mechanisms exist, which create an alternative competitor to government. To recognize International Anti-Corruption Day The Center for International Private Enterprise (December 9, 2011) asked me to write an article on civil society organizations are active participants in business environment and social regulation, entitled “Beyond Advocacy.” It provides examples of how civil society organizations, by taking direct responsibility for regulation, can create more transparent, more efficient, and more effective regulatory regimes that a government agency with the necessary checks to reduce the risks and incentives for cheating and bribery.

    Here is the link to the article: http://www.cipe.org/publications/fs/pdf/120911.pdf.

    All the best,

    Rick O’Sullivan

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