Holyland in the Holy Land: How to prevent corruption?

A general rule is that local governments tend to be more corrupt than state or federal ones.

April 15, 2010 21:44
3 minute read.

business ethics 63. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The press is filled with the latest reports surrounding the Holyland building project in Jerusalem. Police believe developers gave bribes to municipal officials, possibly including two former mayors.

So far there have been no indictments or convictions, so we don’t know where the investigation will lead. But rumors of corruption in the granting of building permits have been a persistent feature of municipal government in Jerusalem.

What can explain this phenomenon? A general rule is that local governments tend to be more corrupt than state or federal ones.

I don’t advocate pity for the corrupt, but it’s worth acknowledging that getting things done through bribery is not so easy. To do it successfully without getting caught, you need to have a small number of people who can help you but will be unlikely to have an interest in coming clean.

You also have the problem of corrupt officials who are doubly unethical: they refuse to stay bought. You need people who are entrenched and seek a reputation for making good on promises to give favors. But that means you need a reputation for corruption among the “right” people, without giving too much evidence to the “wrong” people: reporters and law enforcement.

These conditions are generally easier to find in smaller governments. When government is on a smaller scale, there are fewer decision makers, less turnover, and it’s easier to know everybody and evaluate their receptiveness to bribes.

Law enforcement in 1930s America was able to make a dent in organized crime only when it brought in federal agents who were able to obtain a reputation as “untouchables,” precisely because they were not denizens of the local swamps of corruption. (Another route to being untouchable is to be so rich you just can’t be bothered with bribes. But not every city can find a wealthy mayor like Michael Bloomberg of New York City or Nir Barkat of Jerusalem.)

It’s equally true that local corruption is generally less harmful, so citizens may be more inclined to overlook it. Former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was so popular that he was reelected six times, despite a reputation as being corrupt. Local governments generally just don’t have authority over anything that would make corrupt decisions lead to catastrophe; it’s usually just a question of moving money around or giving permits to political friends or the highest bidder. If something is really harmful, it will likely come to the attention of someone outside the closed ring of corrupt officials; this also acts as a check on the extent of damage corruption can cause.

It follows that one of the best institutional methods for fighting corruption is to involve more people in decision making, on a participatory or supervisory level. Following allegations that tax assessors were approving lenient deals with tax evaders in return for various benefits, including promises of future employment, the Israel Tax Authority introduced reforms that effectively eliminated the authority of a single tax advisor to authorize a compromise. This has been an effective step to prevent this type of corruption.

I believe steps of this nature could help reduce corruption in Jerusalem. To reduce bribery, approval of exceptions to building codes or extraordinary projects should involve more people and more kinds of people.

If committees or commissions include people from different offices within the municipality, more types of officials (elected and appointed, municipal and national), mixing citizens and politicians, then the closed circles so crucial for conspiracy will be much harder to sustain. Obtaining favors through bribery would become harder to achieve and harder to conceal.


Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).

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