Shine a light

How to get results from the government.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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In India, money talks. Though the nation is far from being one of the world’s most corrupt, in some of India’s states the poor still often have to bribe public officials for basic services. But in 2005, the government adopted a new freedom-of-information law, causing two Yale graduate students to wonder whether there might be a better, less cynical way to do business.

Leonid Peisakhin and Paul Pinto, PhD candidates in political science, recruited about 100 New Delhi slum dwellers for an experiment. Most were poorly educated men making an average of $1.50 a day. All participants were eligible for ration cards that entitle holders to free or subsidized food. But obtaining one legitimately is hard; thanks to bribery, cards sometimes wind up in the hands of people who earn too much to qualify.

Peisakhin and Pinto divided the participants into four groups. Applicants in one group submitted their paperwork to the government along with letters of support from a local nonprofit. Another group gave their applications to a middleman, with bribes of $20 each. The third followed up their applications with requests for information under the new Right to Information Act (RTIA). The request inquired as to the status of the application and average processing time. The last group served as the control: no letters, no bribes, no requests.

The results, published in Regulation & Governance, showed that using the RTIA—which cost just 25 cents—was almost as effective as bribery. Applicants who paid bribes received their cards in an average of 82 days; those who submitted RTIA requests received theirs in 120. The other two groups fared much worse: after a year, most applicants were still waiting.

Peisakhin and Pinto see the results as validation of the power of sunshine. “Civil servants who become accountable to the general public are more likely to do their jobs,” Peisakhin says.  

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