Want Clean and Efficient Govt? Pay Staffers More
Lessons from Singapore, the world's cleanest government
We all desire an honest and clean government, from our police officers to White House staffers. Singapore is a country that consistently ranks among the cleanest and most efficient governments in the world. Yet, just a few generations ago, graft in Singapore was a way of life. How did they turn this around and what can we learn from this city state? In short, reason-based policies, trump political soundbites when “draining the swamp.”
Singapore’s Initial Failures
Under British imperial rule, corruption, particularly of the taking of bribes, was a commonly accepted practice. The battle against corruption began in 1871, when Singapore made such acts illegal with the enactment of the Penal Code of the Straits Settlements. The new law had little impact because it lacked an enforcement mechanism.
No additional action was taken until 1937 with the enactment of the Prevention of Corruption Ordinance (POCO). With POCO, there now existed a means of investigating and prosecuting corruption. However, POCOs investigative powers were narrow and punishments limited to small fines and up to two years jail time. Not enough to act as a sufficient deterrent.
An Incentives-Based Approach
In the years leading up to 1960, Singapore’s government realized that corruption is a function of human cost/benefit analysis. The goal, therefore, was to change the perception of graft from a low risk/high reward activity to one that is high risk/low reward. That meant raising government salaries to make graft less attractive, while stiffening enforcement and increasing punishment for corruption.
At the time, Singapore was too poor to raise government salaries. Instead, they focused their attention on the risks of corruption. Accordingly, Singapore strengthened the ability to investigate and prosecute corruption and dramatically raised the risk of getting caught. Jail terms were increased to up to five years, and corrupt gains became seizable, in addition to increased fines. Corruption became a high risk game.
Singapore’s economy boomed in the decades that followed, enabling the city-state to tackle the rewards problem as well. Beginning in the 1970s, the city began raising civil servant salaries. Prime Minister LeeKuan Yew justified repeated salary increases, noting that it would reduce the temptation for graft and stem the brain drain of competent individuals to the private sector. Today, Singapore’s government remains among the cleanest…and highest paid….governments in the world. Not surprisingly, it is generally regarded as one of the most efficient as well.
The approach taken by Singapore, focusing on incentives, is both logical and parsimonious, but it is not the final word. It is further beneficial to reduce the opportunities for graft. Singapore's incentives approach can be combined with “sunshine laws” that require government officials to publicly disclose their assets, and “revolving door” laws that close the revolving door between the public and private sector, eliminating opportunities for conflicts of interest before they arise.
While the West clings to the idealistic notion of the humble civil servant working for the people. It would behoove us to recognize that human behavior is a function of incentives….and politicians are not immune. Lofty pronouncements of “draining the swamp” will do nothing as long as civil servants rely on kickbacks to win elections and to supplement the income that they would have gotten in the private sector.
Rather than tightening our belts, we’d be better off raising government salaries and attracting better talent to public office. Spending a little more now, but actually be cheaper in the long run, and lead to a better and more efficient government.
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