Complexity and (Potential) Corruption

Mark Headd
3 min readFeb 16, 2022
Image of a gloved hand with a nasal swab and a sample tube surrounded by virus molecules

Two things happened at the same time this week that made me think about how inefficient, opaque processes can introduce opportunities for certain individuals to receive beneficial treatment.

First, my wife and I had to take one of our children for a PCR test. The process of getting the results of this test were… frustrating. An unspecific claim of a “computer glitch” slowed the delivery of the outcome of the test, and resulted in lots of frustrated calls to the lab. Second, I noticed a recent article from the local newspaper about the salary of the president of the very hospital where we took our child for her test. Turns out, this person is among the highest paid state employees in New York State.

The proximity of these two things in my brain got me wondering — what would happen if his child needed a PCR test. What are the chances the result would be delayed by a “computer glitch” at the hospital’s lab? Probably pretty slim I reckoned.

Now — I don’t know this person, or even if they have kids. I’m just wondering aloud. Not at all an uncommon thing for a frustrated parent with surplus time to do. But it does make me think about how complex, opaque, or expensive (in time or money) government processes might introduce opportunities for certain people to receive special treatment. People with access, relationships, or resources.

Some notoriously burdensome government processes have their own cottage industry of “expeditors” that have developed around them, as anyone that has had to file a building permit in some parts of the country can tell you. I mean, it’s not like this issue hasn’t cropped up in the past with relation to COVID testing or anything.

But it’s valuable to consider the relationship between the complexity of a government process and the potential for corruption (which I’ll use as shorthand for people with resources getting unfairly beneficial treatment). The more burdensome, lengthy, or expensive a government process is, the more opportunities there are for powerful individuals to use their influence to obtain more favorable treatment. Complexity is the fertile ground in which the seeds of corruption can find purchase.

If we make these processes less burdensome, quicker, and cheaper, we insulate them from corruption. You can’t game the system if there is no relative benefit of doing so.

There’s a ton of good information on administrative burdens and the benefits of reducing them, and now I’m curious if there is anything in the public administration research or literature about the direct relationship between the efficiency of a process and the potential for corruption.

That’s research for another day.

Still, even the anecdotal relationship between efforts to reduce the burden of government processes and the potential to reduce corruption are exciting. As someone who works to make government operate more transparently and more efficiently, it’s incredibly motivating to think that these efforts might potentially help guard against corruption.

Just another good reason to do this work.