Empty Reasons? Evidence from a Natural Experiment on the Effect of Public Reasoning Requirements
Title: Empty Reasons? Evidence from a Natural Experiment on the Effect of Public Reasoning Requirements
Abstract: Norms of reason-giving rest at the foundation of our public institutions, plausibly disciplining officials where financial and electoral incentives do not apply. Yet do requirements for reason-giving induce public officials to pursue statutory objectives or behave in pro-social ways? Little observational evidence exists on this question. Here, I study a unique natural experiment in federal procurement, in which contracting officials were required to provide public reasons if they awarded certain contracts without competition, but only if the contract was valued above a statutory threshold. Using a difference-in-differences design, I find that the reason-giving requirement substantially increased the probability that contracting officials competed contracts and therefore complied with the relevant statutory objective. I also investigate a discontinuity design but find sorting around the threshold by sophisticated entities, a finding that further supports the materiality of reason-giving. Secondary results suggest the reasoning requirement reduced the volume of contracts awarded by agencies and changed the composition of firms receiving contracts. These findings speak to complex tradeoffs around public reasoning requirements and their distributional consequences.