The carrot + the stick: balancing motivation and enforcement when reducing illegal activity

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The topic of enforcement typically surfaces early on when planning projects that aim to reduce incidents of illegal behavior, whether it’s illegal fishing or driving without using a seatbelt. And often the question is: which do we tackle to see results – the lack of enforcement needed to catch those doing illegal activities, or the fact that people continue to conduct illegal activity?

The short answer is: you need to tackle both. But I want to touch upon some lessons I’ve learned about the role of enforcement when promoting legal behaviors.

LESSON 1: Enforcement alone does not equal behavior change

Without a doubt, having a strong, well-functioning, efficient enforcement system is critical when aiming to reduce illegal activity. I mean, there’s really no point in having a law if no one ever gets caught or in trouble for breaking it.

A strong enforcement system will provide your project with the following benefits:

  • A visible reminder that authority figures ARE WATCHING and you better be on your best behavior
  • Consequences for those who break the law, which sends a signal to everyone to be careful what they do and reinforces legal/appropriate behavior
  • Active protection for areas that are under threat from illegal activity, keeping an area and its inhabitants safe

However, enforcement alone will not change the social norms of those doing illegal activity. Rather it will be seen as a threat to the current way of life, will force those doing illegal activity to become sneakier, and will risk creating an “us versus them” situation where both sides stop listening to one another.

Therefore, running a communications campaign that introduces and promotes the appropriate social norm in conjunction with improving enforcement is the ideal combination. The communications will spread a positive message about why adopting legal behaviors is beneficial and enforcement will both catch the laggards and reinforce the norm (rather than purely just enforce it).

LESSON 2: Enforcers are people too

Enforcing rules, regulations, and the law is not an easy job, especially if you’re not getting paid very much or if the people you catch doing illegal activity are part of your same community. Projects addressing a weak enforcement system often need to provide additional equipment, resources, and gear to make the system run efficiently. And in many cases, improvements in enforcement require more personal provisions as well: such as skill building, communication improvements, and even increased motivation.

Enforcers are people too, and their jobs are hard. Using your skills in understanding audiences and communication can help identify what will motivate enforcers to do their jobs diligently. Maybe they need an indicator of authority to wear (a badge or uniform), maybe they need recognition for when they’ve done well, maybe they need to feel they’re part of something important, and maybe they need to feel more confident in their own abilities. Identifying and addressing these needs through trainings and communications (meetings, handouts, etc.) is important to sustaining the energy needed to enforce illegal activity.

However, this does not fall into the behavior change category (doing your job well is not behavior change), this should not be a full marketing and outreach effort, and this should not be the sole focus of your program to reduce illegal activity.

LESSON 3: Self-compliance is the best form of compliance

This lesson stems from #1 and is worth calling out specifically as its own lesson. A project manager working on an illegal fishing campaign in the Philippines once said this line: “the best form of compliance is self-compliance”. Motivating, supporting, and prompting the target audience to adopt legal activities is a more cost-efficient and sustainable approach to changing behaviors. As more members of the audience willingly cease their illegal activities, then they’ll establish a new social norm and begin to enforce it themselves. This reduces the burden on the enforcement teams to guard everyone, and instead they can focus on catching the laggards who many never adopt the new norm. This can also free up enforcers to focus on other pressing issues and not result in increased costs and spending year after year.

LESSON 4: Don’t promote the risk until it’s real

It is tempting to promote the risk of getting caught and fined as a main benefit to why your audience should not engage in illegal activity. The campaign slogan “click it or ticket” did just that – the entire campaign premise is that you WILL get pulled over and fined if you are caught driving without your seatbelt on. And when this campaign launched, the local police department made a concerted push to have their traffic cops on the lookout specifically for non-seatbelt wearers, and people actually got pulled over and ticketed. Therefore, the campaign message was validated as a real threat as people told their own ticket stories to one another, reinforcing through peer discussion the need to put your seatbelt on.

But if this campaign came out and people rarely ever got caught by the police, and there was no campaign promoting the safety benefit of wearing seatbelts (which ran in parallel with the ‘click it or ticket’ message), then it would not have worked. The audience would quickly realize that it was all talk and no follow through, and it’s really hard for a behavior change effort to rebound from a lack of belief like that.

If your enforcement system is not yet equipped to truly enforce the law, then don’t include that message in your communications campaign. Instead, focus on the benefits to the audience of doing the right behavior, which is a more powerful motivator over the long run anyways. Once enforcement is running smoothly, then you can assess if including messages about the risk of getting caught will help reinforce the desired social norm.

In summary

It is worth investing in a communications campaign that establishes, encourages, and reinforces what appropriate and legal behavior looks like, in addition to improving a weakened enforcement system. The two should work hand-in-hand to both motivate the audience and send a serious message about the consequences of conducting illegal activities. Over time, the communications campaign will form a new norm that gets reinforced by the community itself and will reduce the high cost of formal enforcement.


Anytime you’re in a car – whether you’re driving, you’re in the backseat, or you’re in a taxi – please buckle your seatbelt for your own safety and the safety of others around you. Thank you!


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