Ethics by Design: The Impact of Form of Government on Municipal Corruption

Date01 July 2019
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/puar.13050
AuthorWhitney B. Afonso,Kimberly L. Nelson
Published date01 July 2019
Ethics by Design: The Impact of Form of GovernmentonMunicipal Corruption 591
Whitney B. Afonso is associate
professor of public administration and
government in the School of Government,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
E-mail: afonso@sog.unc.edu
Abstract: While trust in government at all levels is at an all-time low, actual corruption at the municipal level
has been declining. One factor often credited with this decline is the introduction of the council-manager form of
government. One of the key reasons the council-manager form was created in the early 1900s was to act as an antidote
to the corruption prevalent in the big-city machine politics of the era. Despite this, no one has tested whether the
council-manager form has in fact influenced the decline in corruption rates. This article uses a rare events logit model
to analyze corruption convictions in municipalities between 1990 and 2010 to determine which factors, including
form of government, affect the probability that a corrupt act will occur. The findings indicate that municipalities with
the council-manager form are 57 percent less likely to have corruption convictions than municipalities with the mayor-
council form.
Evidence for Practice
• The council-manager form of government lessens the likelihood of government corruption in municipalities.
• A change in form of government, either to or from the council-manager form, increases neither the risk of
corruption nor the likelihood of uncovering corruption that leads to a conviction.
• Having a mayor elected at-large is found to reduce the risk of corruption.
Trust in government is at an all-time low. In
2016, only 42 percent of Americans polled
said they trusted their political leaders, down
more than 20 percentage points since 2004 (Jones
2016). It is not surprising given the dramatic and
disturbing headlines of mayors arrested for accepting
bribes, municipal staff embezzlements, and managers
accepting gifts to approve contracts. Despite the
shocking nature of such cases, however, they are not
common events within U.S. municipal government.
There is no evidence that supports an increase in the
rate of public corruption over time (Glaeser and Saks
2006). In fact, corruption decreased over the past
century. In the 1800s and early 1900s, corruption was
rampant in American cities, with the levels of election
fraud and graft reaching their peaks in the 1870s. In
the decades since, however, these levels have dropped
sharply, such that the level of municipal corruption
in the 1870s is estimated to be five times higher than
levels in the 1970s (Glaeser and Goldin 2004).
One factor often credited with this decline in
corruption is the reform of local government and
the introduction of the council-manager form of
municipal government in 1908.1 In the council-
manager form, an elected body consisting of a mayor
and council have unified executive and legislative
powers and appoint a professional manager to
run the day-to-day operations of the government.
The development of the council-manager form
was arguably one of the greatest innovations in
local government in the United States. Use of the
council-manager form, today by more than half of
all municipal governments with populations over
2,500, has transformed the way these municipalities
operate.2 One of the key reasons the council-manager
form was developed was to act as an antidote to the
corruption prevalent in the machine politics of the
era. Public Administration Review recognized the
significance of the creation of the council-manager
form by highlighting research on the form during its
centennial. And yet no one has tested whether the
use of the council-manager form has been able to
influence corruption rates in local governments.
Other factors may have contributed to corruption
declines, including more laws and harsher penalties
for public corruption, increasing media scrutiny of
local governments, and greater oversight by state and
federal governments (Glaeser and Goldin 2004). Are
these other factors in fact responsible for the change
in corruption levels, or has the increasing use of the
council-manager form been a part of this reduction?
There are two lines of reasoning that can be used to
Kimberly L. Nelson
Whitney B. Afonso
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Kimberly L. Nelson is Albert and
Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Term
Associate Professor of Public Administration
and Government in the School of
Government, University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill.
E-mail: knelson@sog.unc.edu
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 4, pp. 591–600. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13050.
Ethics by Design: The Impact of Form of
Government on Municipal Corruption
Research Article

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