Study Shows Less Corruption in City Manager Systems

Local governments led by city managers are 57% less likely to have corruption, according to a study published in the last issue of Public Administration Review (July/August). The study, by Kimberly L. Nelson and Whitney B. Afonso of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, proclaims to be the first exhaustive study of corruption and connections to different forms of government.

Nelson and Afonso examined cases of corruption between 1990-2010 in cities with more than 10,000 people. Corruption was defined as cases filed in court and resulting in convictions, of which there were 146 during this time period. Quoting a separate study, the authors say that corruption is down significantly from the period prior to formation of the city manager system, with five times fewer cases in the 1970’s compared to the 1870’s.

The formation of the National Civic League and our involvement in helping to create the city manager form of government were in large part a reaction to the corruption and partisanship at the local level during this earlier time. With civic leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis pushing for change, the League worked with the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) and others during the progressive era to professionalize local government and create reforms to reduce corruption.

In the study on corruption, Nelson and Afonso separate out other factors, like a more attentive news media (at least up until recently), to show a strong correlation between city manager-based systems and reduced corruption. Some of the reasons put forward for this difference include the dependence of elected mayors on campaign donations, existence of legal protections against administrative abuse and compliance of city managers with the ICMA code of ethics.

The study found that a relatively small number of cities, 66, accounted for the 146 cases of corruption during the two decades studied, so that most cities had no cases. A few cities, like Newark and Chicago, had multiple cases, with these two cities having seven and nine respectively.

Finally, the study also found a correlation with high poverty levels, meaning that cities with high poverty levels had more corruption, which the authors postulate may be related to either those cities not having the resources to have thorough internal protections or to a lack of attention and vigilance on the part of the community’s population.

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