Bribery: ‘redesign public services to cut risk’

Paying bribes to access basic services is rife worldwide: our research shows that globally, it affects the lives of more than one in four people.

Bribery that takes place between citizens and officials is illegal and bad for society. It’s an unjust cost for taxpayers to bear, denying people their right to access necessities such as education, healthcare, permits and policing.

It creates an environment where citizens may resort to unfair means to get the services they need or to speed up delivery, and can encourage officials to seek out further opportunities to abuse their positions.

In the new book Paying Bribes for Public Services: A Global Guide to Grass-Roots Corruption, authors Professor Richard Rose and Caryn Peiffer look at how bribery in public services impacts communities all over the world and suggest what can be done to reduce opportunities for exploitation.

During a recent visit to Berlin, we spoke with Professor Rose about the book:

Who do you think is most at risk of bribery?

Based on interviews with a quarter of a million people in 119 countries, I calculated that about 1.6 billion people worldwide are affected by bribery. This puts a great number of people at risk. When you look at the relationship between families and public services, different age groups are exposed to particular risks. Young people are more in contact with education, while the elderly rely more on health services. In parts of the world where women are the predominant caretakers, they also have more exposure to education and healthcare services.

What do you see as the reasons for different rates of bribery around the world?

Bribery has a lot to do with how resources are distributed in a country. When they’re scarce, not everyone gets what they’re entitled to. For example, if hospitals don’t have enough beds to accommodate all their patients, deciding who gets a bed and who doesn’t can become an exploitative process. If you make services more widely available, you reduce their scarcity and you reduce corruption.

What impact does bribery have on people?

It encourages distrust in governments. For example, when you don’t trust the police and have to hire a private security force, social relationships are corroded and the economic efficiency of a country is reduced.

Bribery also interferes with a government’s capacity to do what they should be good at – like educating people, providing healthcare, issuing permits and licences, and keeping the streets safe.

How do you think it’s possible to reduce bribery in the delivery of public services?

My suggestion is for governments to reduce the number of regulations needed to deliver services. For example, perhaps it isn’t necessary for several officials to sign a particular document or permit, or for an official to meet people face to face in a queue. You can also deliver some of these services electronically, like a motor vehicle licence. At schools and universities exams can be set and marked by computer. In hospitals, you can publish a list of where people are placed in a queue and how urgent their case is. All these make it harder to cheat the system through bribery.

Carousel image: Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

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