Corruption and bureaucratic rigidity

Steve Kelman contends that federal management systems are far more rule-bound than the cases of corruption warrant.

steve kelman

I saw a small story recently in the China-based Beijing Review that translated an article from the official Communist Party People’s Daily about a college admission reform that had been abandoned by one of China’s leading universities, Renmin University in Beijing. The article suggests a very interesting story about the relationship between the extent of corruption in a government and the degree of bureaucratic rigidity required in managing the public sector. It is a story with relevance to the United States as well. 

University admissions in China are based strictly on test scores in a college entrance examination run by each province . It is a very cut-and-dried, rigid system. No points are deducted for being a boring grind who does nothing but study for exams, no consideration of having been under the weather the day of the exam, no points added for creativity, community service, or for acting, musical or athletic ability. 

Ten years ago, at a small number of elite universities, a program was introduced allowing the schools to admit a select group of students on the basis of criteria other than the national entrance exam score. The idea was that this flexibility would allow the universities to admit outstanding students whose qualities did not fully come forth on the entrance exam.

 That system was suspended last November following the arrest of Renmin's head of admissions for taking bribes from parents to secure admission to their children under the flexible admissions program. 

When I read the article, I immediately thought about college admissions systems at American universities, which frequently use a number of criteria – grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, leadership, community service and so forth – in making admissions decisions. These systems have existed for a hundred years, and they continue to exist. They can continue to exist in the United States because it is virtually unheard of to bribe an admissions director to get a kid admitted. 

Notice the correlation. When there is a high level of corruption in an institution or a society, pressures arise not to allow discretion in making decisions, because such discretion provides opportunity for the decision-maker to be bribed. But that creates an inflexible, bureaucratic system that does not allow for the richness and nuance of judgment in making decisions.

It would have been nice for Renmin University not to be shackled to using only test scores to admit students, because that would mean they would be making offers to students it would be good for them to have. But in a corrupt environment, Renmin may have no choice.

One of the (many) prices organizations -- and governments -- pay for corruption is that it shackles them to rigid decision-making systems that often fail to produce the most-appropriate decisions or solutions. The flip side is that if your organization or government is lucky enough to have a low level of corruption, you have more room to develop more flexible decision-making systems -- and to allow for better decisions. 

Let’s apply this to the United States. The recent high-profile cases of procurement corruption notwithstanding, the federal procurement system -- and decision-making in U.S. executive-branch agencies more generally -- is remarkably uncorrupt. We are very lucky. (When I tell Mexicans that no American police officer has ever requested a bribe from me in my life, they stare with incredulity.) Yet the degree of rigidity in our procurement, human resources, and other government management systems is too high for our low level of corruption.

To be sure, sometimes the argument for rigidity is not to avoid corruption but to avoid “arbitrary” decisions. This has a lot of merit for issues of rights and obligations, but is less relevant to discretionary government decisions such as those involving awarding a procurement contract. As a general matter, I think we want transparency, and an explanation for why decisions came out as they did. Neither of those needs, however, are inconsistent with more flexibility. 

We are not Nigeria or Venezuela or China. We don’t need to be so rigid, and that is a good thing. But sometimes we seem to be too afraid to take advantage of our advantage. Imagine if Harvard or Columbia adopted an exam-score-only admissions system because Renmin University in China has had a corruption problem! More flexibility in U.S. public management is in order.

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