Do corruption measures have a perception problem? Assessing the relationship between experiences and perceptions of corruption among citizens and experts

How well do corruption perception measures reflect actual levels of public sector corruption? Leading cross-national corruption perception measures have come under much theoretical and empirical scrutiny in recent years, with serious implications for the validity and reliability of the data in this ever growing sub-field. Critics argue that perceptions – in particular those of outside experts – do not reflect actual corruption in that they are far too ‘noisy’ or simply biased by external factors such as economic performance. Moreover, a number of recent empirical studies, focused on developing areas, have put forth evidence that outside expert assessments of corruption correspond little, if at all, with the experiences and views of actual citizens, and that such a lack of correspondence demonstrates pessimism for existing perception measures. This study offers a systematic analysis of the empirical strength of corruption perception measures in a previously unexplored area in this debate – Europe. Using new survey data collected by the author based on 85,000 European respondents in 24 countries, this issue is analyzed directly, addressing several contemporary critiques of the data. First, perceptions of citizens with, and without, personal corruption experience are compared at both the national and sub-national level in Europe. Second, external factors are checked, which might bias the extent to which citizens perceive corruption relative to how much actual corruption exists in countries and regions. Finally, expert perception indicators and citizen perceptions and experiences are compared. In summary, strong counter-evidence is found to the prevailing pessimistic claims in the literature – the consistency between actual reported corruption, as well as citizen and expert perceptions of corruption, is remarkably high and such perceptions are swayed little by ‘outside noise’. The author concludes that, although existing corruption measures certainly have their share of problems, concerns regarding the validity and bias of perceptions have, perhaps, been overstated.

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