• Jared Miller, CJL

Civil Servants, Social Norms, and Corruption – What do we know and what do we do?

By Jared Miller, Senior Associate, CJL

Across the globe, each year trillions of dollars are spent on public services and foreign aid programs to improve public services, yet corruption often undermines these efforts. Corruption among civil servants is one reason why local community programs in the Niger Delta have failed to materialize and why IDP camps in northeast Nigeria didn’t receive lifesaving relief materials. Not only does public sector corruption undermine the provision of public goods and services, but it also drives frustrations against governments and can be a cause of violent conflict. So what do we do about it?

Anti-corruption efforts targeting the public sector aren’t new and we’ve learned a lot over the last few decades. Unfortunately, most of what we’ve learned is what doesn’t work—but even this helps the field move further. Lessons from USAID, OECD, and researchers like David Jackson and Leena Koni Hoffmann have identified a missing piece in corruption analysis and anticorruption strategy: social norms.

“If social norms that influence corrupt behaviors among civil servants are important, what are those social norms? It’s a simple question to ask, but a hard one to answer.”

A growing number of researchers have identified social norms as one of the key reasons anti-corruption efforts targeting civil servants have proven ineffective. Historically, many of these programs focused on the formal structures and rules thought to enable or encourage corruption. This meant, however, that the informal dynamics—especially the social norms—that were often more influential than the formal rules, weren’t considered. So while the formal rules may have changed as a result of an anti-corruption program, the real rules—the ones influenced by social norms—did not. For example, a program may have changed the official hiring procedures for a civil servant (official rules), but changing those procedures doesn’t mean a hiring manager faces any less pressure to hire a member of her family (indirect social norm). Addressing corruption often requires addressing the social norms also at play.

What we know, what we don’t, and what we need to know

Yes, practitioners, academics, and donors increasingly acknowledge the importance of understanding social norms and the intersection with corrupt behaviors among civil servants. However, this intersection is either often left as an open question or reported as an evidence gap in studies commissioned by major anti-corruption donors such as the World Bank, USAID, and OECD. Even in a survey of research on psychological variables related to corruption, research has shown that social norms related to corruption are under-researched.

As part of our Social Norms and Corruption project, we at CJL want to understand what evidence from research and praxis tells us about social norms influencing corruption among civil servants. Specifically, we are interested in two questions:

  1. What do we know about social norms that drive corruption among civil servants in contexts of systemic corruption; and

  2. What do we know about strategies to change these norms?

Although we’re still in the midst of conducting a literature review on these questions, we want to share three resources that have stood out.

“In line with our mission to improve practice, our goal is not just to understand social norms, corruption, and civil servants, but more importantly how to program on it.”

1. Examples of corrupt behaviors driven by social norms

If social norms that influence corrupt behaviors among civil servants are important, what are those social norms? It’s a simple question to ask, but a hard one to answer. In their Encyclopedia of Informality, Alena Ledeneva and an array of co-authors provide some answers.

A social norm, they argue, is a mutual expectation about how to behave in a particular setting, but what that means in practice varies based on context. From blat in Russia, kula in Tanzania, and uhljeb in Croatia, Ledeneva and her co-authors explain informal practices from around the globe, some of which are linked to corrupt acts.

For example, in Russia, blat is understood as a way of using personal contacts to pull strings and exchange favors in order to get things done. Blat contacts can help circumvent formal rules or access scarce public goods and services. This is an example of a social norm that can be related to a corrupt behavior if it leads an official to use their position to direct benefits to their friends. In Romania, the social norm of blat also exists, but is practiced differently; there, as Marius Wamsiedel explains, the practice of blat has a monetary connotation, whereas in Russia it was non-monetary. On a broader scale, Ledeneva also describes how these can be compared with other “economies of favors” such as guanxi (China), pituto (Chile), vruzki (Bulgaria), and torpil (Turkey).

Such comparisons illuminate how 1) social norms differ across contexts; 2) how they may or may not be related to corrupt acts; and 3) how designers of anti-corruption programs that go beyond formal rules and structures should bear social norms in mind.

2. Cross-cutting social norms that influence corrupt behaviors among civil servants

If social norms are inherently contextual, are there ones that cut across contexts? In “A Moral Economy of Corruption in Africa,” Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan argues that some general social logics exist and that these are good places to look for contextual social norms.

Drawing on evidence from his ethnographic research in the Sahel, Olivier de Sardan seeks to explain what he calls the moral economy of corruption. By moral economy, he means the value systems and cultural codes that justify corruption from the perspective of those who practice it, and how these systems and codes normalize corruption to everyday practice. He argues that corruption is “social[ly] embedded in ‘logics’ of negotiation, gift-giving, solidarity, predatory authority, and redistributive accumulation,” which we would describe as places to see if social norms were at work. As Cori Simmons highlighted in this very blog, proverbs and idioms are often good places to start to understand if a social norm is influencing a corrupt behavior.

3. Creating evidence-based social norm strategies

In line with our mission to improve practice, our goal is not just to understand social norms, corruption, and civil servants, but more importantly how to program on it. For a fantastic example of how to conduct a social norms analysis of corruption and design an evidence-based anti-corruption strategy, check out Leena Koni Hoffmann and Raj Navanit Patel’s Collective Action on Corruption in Nigeria: A Social Norms Approach to Connecting Society and Institutions.

Hoffmann, Patel, and a team of researchers in Nigeria conducted a survey of more than 4,000 Nigerian households to understand how social norms influence corrupt behaviors related to corruption in law enforcement and the public health sector. Their survey used vignettes to identify social norms at play as well as the underlying injunctive and descriptive components and how these may differ from the respondent’s attitudes. (If you’re new to social norms and their components, we recommend our Social Norms for Practitioners Guide.) In contrast to many existing studies, Hoffmann and Patel also sought to understand the interaction between these social norms and gender norms. Their rich analysis of how specific social norms influence corrupt acts also demonstrates how a strong analysis can begin to point to a practical strategy.

Their analysis showed a divergence between injunctive and descriptive norms. Many respondents, for instance, had an inflated view (also known as pluralistic ignorance) of the acceptability of bribery in traffic stops. Based on this finding, Hoffmann and Patel provide a series of recommendations to challenge the common belief that specific corrupt behaviors were acceptable. This led to tangible programmatic recommendations like media programs and engaging trendsetters that many of us are familiar with. We also recommend Hoffmann and Patel’s more recent work to understand how religious norms interact with social norms related to corrupt behaviors in Nigeria.

A key takeaway from Hoffmann and Patel’s work: robust social norms analysis can identify entry points for anti-corruption programming, as well as provide evidence to inform contextually relevant theories of change.

What’s Next?

In the coming months we’ll publish our state of the field report on civil servants, social norms, and corruption. This report will outline what we know, don’t know, and what we need to know about social norms that drive corruption among civil servants and about strategies to change those social norms. In the meantime, check out all our blogs devoted to civil servants and corruption. And reach out to me at jared.miller@tufts.edu if you’d like to learn more about this project or share your own research or practical experience.


Jared is a Senior Associate with CJL. Jared has more than seven years of experience as a practitioner and researcher focused on peacebuilding, corruption, and governance issues. Outside of his work with CJL, Jared is also pursuing his PhD in International Relations at The Fletcher School at Tufts University with a focus on how to strengthen accountable governance in contexts of systemic corruption. Jared is also a Fellow with the Institute for Human Security and a Research Assistant with the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Previously, Jared worked in Nigeria for Search for Common Ground on issues ranging from human rights accountability and accountable governance to youth-led efforts to counter violent extremism.