January 23, 2014

Paul Lagunes, an assistant professor of international and public affairs, is a native of Mexico City who earned his BA at Duke and MA and PhD in political science at Yale, where he also spent the 2012-13 academic year as a postdoctoral associate.

It was at Yale that he collaborated on an experiment that led to the published paper “Corruption and Inequality at the Crossroads.” The paper represented a significant step toward what has become Lagunes’s specialty — Latin American politics with a focus on corruption in urban settings. His work to date has been published in Latin American Research Review, Political Psychology, Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Research Network, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He recently spoke to SIPA news about his current work.

What does it mean to study corruption?

My focus is on urban corruption, especially as it affects an urban government’s civil servants. My work takes two tracks — uncovering how corruption works on the ground, and figuring out what to do about it, which includes testing mechanisms that may help fight corruption.

To understand how corruption works on the ground, I’ve collaborated with two local urban governments in Mexico. High-level officials in the City of Querétaro and in the Mexico City borough of Miguel Hidalgo allowed me to gain ample access to their offices, to their people, to their processes, to their documents, and so on. Through this collaboration I was able to gather information as a participant-observer.

What have you found, generally speaking?

Some of the examples of corruption are surprising, if not depressing. First, you find corruption all over the place – it can affect every single part of public administration, from the public cemetery where bodies were disinterred in order to re-use or re-sell the burial space, to turning police cars into unlicensed taxicabs. I was impressed by how many parts of government were affected.

One lesson is that corruption is in equilibrium when you have powerful interest groups, flawed laws, vitiated bureaucrats, a captured judiciary, and a climate of impunity. This last one is particularly important, because corruption is seldom punished. At most a corrupt official will be fired, but even that tends to be the exception. Which takes me to the study I conducted in Querétaro, a two- or three-hour drive from Mexico’s Federal District.

What happened there?

To prove their effectiveness, anti-corruption agencies worldwide tend to rely on things like the number of officials who are sanctioned or penalized in some way. That’s an imperfect strategy, because we don’t know what the universe of corrupt cases is – what share of the corrupt officials they represent.

In Querétaro, the question was: What role can monitoring have in fighting corruption? I used a field experiment or randomized control trial to test two versions of the world. In one version, officials know they are being monitored by an independent observer, who’s there to investigate corruption activity, and in another version they don’t know the monitor is in place. This model gives us a glimpse into what the world looks like when we have anti-corruption agencies at work, versus not.

There’s an added twist to my work. I show how effective monitoring is with and without the possibility of punishment. The findings, which will be published online within a month, suggest that transparency, public scrutiny, even shaming is not enough — the watchful eye must be paired with a cracking whip. If you look at Mexico, India, Brazil, Peru, which are democracies weighed down by corruption, relying on transparency has not been enough. What’s missing is frying the big fish.

Do your findings make you optimistic or pessimistic at all?

It can get depressing, some of the things you find. [As a researcher] you don’t want to grow too thick of a skin that these things stop impressing you. And fortunately they still have an effect on me.

I’m interested in the abuse of public trust, so if a police officer is supposed to regulate traffic and fight crime, I’m concerned when that doesn’t happen because he’s pocketed a bribe. When an official is supposed to regulate construction so buildings are safe, but he doesn’t because of corruption, then I know we have a major problem. These are abuses of public trust that I care about.

I’m conditionally optimistic as long as civil society – the press, academia, and the public — maintains sensitivity to corruption and protests it and demands that things move on the right path. But right now I feel that fight is vulnerable.

How do you choose the places you study?

To study corruption, it’s tricky. I need to feel comfortable enough with my surroundings that I can pursue research on this topic. If I’m going to continue to conduct these experiments I want to go beyond my home country, and extend my comfort zone, to make my research more generalizable. Lima [Peru] is a place I had been to on two other occasions before I began my [current] research. It’s a city I’ve come to know and appreciate. Last semester I visited Lima three times, and this is all the groundwork that goes into trying to get the collaboration of a city government and gather the contextual information you need to understand a city.

Do you feel like you’re making a difference? Are you worried about contributing to a bad image for your hometown?

I don’t single individual people out — that’s for law enforcement agents. My job is figuring out what’s wrong with the system. I think that’s a contribution to the fight against corruption.

As for Mexico City, I think everyone should visit — it’s culturally rich, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s a wonderful city in many ways. But it has these issues. Because I love Mexico City, I think you seek to help it surpass its limitations.

You’re in the middle of your first year at SIPA. How do you like being here, and living in New York City?

I’m happy to call this place my new community. I really appreciate the students — their background, their international profile, their motivations. They are really interesting people. I also like that the faculty and administrators have a human side. I’ve seen it and I appreciate it.

Mexico City often looks to New York as an example, so it’s nice to be here and see how the city works, and live in it. To be honest, I haven’t had enough time to enjoy it yet, but it’s great to live in the capital of the world. And the view from my office is inspiring.

— Condensed and edited from an interview on January 10, 2014