New HKS Faculty Working Paper Examines State Government Corruption

May 16, 2012
By Doug Gavel

Why are certain U.S. state governments more prone to corruption than others? That question is at the heart of a new Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Faculty Working Paper co-authored by HKS Assistant Professor Filipe Campante. "Isolated Capital Cities, Accountability and Corruption: Evidence from US States" analyzes the connections between isolated state capitals, media and voter accountability and corruption.

"Some have raised the idea that having a capital city that is geographically isolated from the main centers of population is conducive to higher corruption, as the distance would lead to less accountability," the authors write. "[These observations have] largely not been tested systematically, however, which we believe is due to the lack of appropriate measurement tools for the relevant idea of the spatial distribution of population around the capital city."

By examining detailed population data and federal conviction records, the researchers found that isolated U.S. capital cities are more prone to government corruption. They also find that they are associated with less accountability in a number of dimensions -- including less accountability by the media and voters and more special interest money flowing into the system.

"[We find] evidence that the [spatial] distribution [of the population around capital cities] affects different levers of accountability, such as media scrutiny of politicians and the engagement with state politics. The role of the media, in particular, seems to be able to explain part of that impact on corruption," the authors conclude. "In addition, there is some evidence that these isolated capitals are associated with worse public good provision. This sheds new light on the mechanisms of corruption and accountability, and adds a novel dimension toward understanding how institutional choices over the structure of the political system affect the incentives of the actors that operate in them."

The paper is co-authored by Quoc-Anh Do, Singapore Management University.

Filipe R. Campante is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He is interested in political economy and economic development, with special emphasis on understanding the constraints that are faced by politicians and governments beyond elections and formal "checks and balances." His research has focused on the constraints imposed by the spatial distribution of population, the media, political protest, lobbying, and campaign contributions, and their effects on corruption, governance, polarization, fiscal policy, and political instability.

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posed photo of Filipe Campante

Filipe R. Campante, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School

"[These observations have] largely not been tested systematically, however, which we believe is due to the lack of appropriate measurement tools for the relevant idea of the spatial distribution of population around the capital city," write the authors.