Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Monitoring as a Democratic Imperative: A Study on Corruption and Accountability in Mexico
by Lagunes, Paul Felipe, Ph.D., Yale University, 2012, 223; 3525191
Abstract (Summary)

Democratic transition has failed to make local urban governments in Mexico more responsive to the public interest. This critical problem is made evident by the persistence of corruption in the form of bribery, shirking, influence, cronyism, and nepotism. Government inspectors continue to allow informal vendors to set up shop on city streets in exchange for regular bribe payments. Basic public services, such as trash collection, are still withheld unless residents pay a regular, unofficial quota. Transit police forgive the traffic violations of the rich, but require bribes from the poor who commit the exact same infraction. Real estate developers persevere in building irregular and unsafe constructions, many of which reach several stories above the legal height limit, because of the power these economic actors hold over regulatory and judicial institutions.

In examining why the problem of corruption remains entrenched, my central thesis is that free and fair elections have failed to make city governments in Mexico more responsive to the public interest because of institutional factors that are beyond the voters' immediate realm of influence. The first of these factors are special interest groups. Market actors, such as real estate developers, rely on corruption to achieve dishonest ends. The second is a vitiated bureaucracy whose members are seldom in tune with the electorate's interests. More often than not, elected officials have no alternative but to rely on these bureaucrats to administer a municipal government. The third is the legal framework, which is flawed insofar as it grants officials numerous opportunities to act discretionally and to sell their interpretation of what is lawful. The fourth is a judicial system that is captured by the powerful. The fifth and last is impunity. Corruption often goes undetected and even more frequently unpunished. In sum, resulting from fifteen months of field research across nine distinct urban governments in Mexico (two of which granted unrestricted access to their offices, information, and staff), I use a wealth of data to explain how market actors, bureaucrats, and members of the judiciary continue to reap the benefits of a vice-ridden system that is largely unresponsive to the public interest.

In order to disrupt the corrupt status quo and deliver on the democratic promise of heightened accountability, this dissertation puts forth an empirically tested policy recommendation. Specifically, I endorse external audits. As a means of testing the power of this particular oversight mechanism, I ran a field experiment in collaboration with a Mexican government agency that grants building permits to citizens and contractors. I randomly selected construction permit applications into a treatment group. Officials were informed that an external observer was reviewing projects within this group. They did not know that another set of randomly selected permit applications were part of a comparison group and, thus, also subject to independent scrutiny. Data was gathered discretely through the government's computer network. The experiment's results show that monitoring spurs greater diligence, stringency, and honesty among bureaucrats. These findings, however, are not driven by the audit itself. The randomized study brings to bear evidence that oversight is undeniably effective only when officials face the risk of a top-down sanction.

A number of governments will likely adopt the recommendations made in this dissertation. Whether it is the reformist candidate who wins on an anticorruption platform, or the young elected mayor who strives for honesty as a means to win a future bid for higher office, there are heads of government who will want to rely on independent oversight. Their alternative is massive overhaul. Reformists can aim to renovate governing institutions and renew and professionalize bureaucracies nationwide, but hoping for such far-reaching changes may prove futile. Thus, I hold that newly democratized regimes that face entrenched corruption should depend on scrupulous and targeted external audits in order to heighten government responsiveness to the public interest. Anticorruption monitoring is a democratic imperative.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Rose-Ackerman, Susan
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 73/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Latin American Studies, Public administration, Public policy
Keywords: Accountability, Audit, Corruption, Democracy, Mexico, Monitoring
Publication Number: 3525191
ISBN: 978-1-267-57474-9
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