A ‘Picture-Perfect’ Regulatory System

We need rules and regulations, but nothing beats voluntary compliance. There are ways to make that happen.
by | March 21, 2012

Babak Armajani

Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.

Pictures can say a lot. I want you to take a quick look at some pictures that will help you think about ways to improve the regulatory systems you manage.

First, let's define success. Much of what government does involves getting people to behave in a certain way that enhances the overall well-being of the community. "Regulation" is kind of a misnomer, as it is just one means to the ultimate end — that people comply with an established behavior, norm or rule. We call this "compliance."

There is more to the bottom line, however. Not only do we want people to comply, but we want compliance to cost as little as possible. This includes the cost of the burden on the complier as well as the cost to government of making sure people comply. So, the bottom line is maximizing compliance and minimizing cost.

Using a definition like this opens the door to creative possibilities. Historically, we have used regulation to achieve compliance. It involves promulgating a rule or law, inspecting behavior and penalizing non-compliance through some sort of due process. This approach is both necessary and expensive.

If we could complement expensive enforcement with getting people to comply voluntarily, it would improve the bottom line. Look at the pictures below. Each demonstrates an important principle for raising voluntary compliance while reducing cost.

But you have to do a little translating to make this work. I'm not suggesting that you replicate these examples exactly. Rather, understand the principle that makes them work in one setting and apply that principle in your own compliance setting.

Radar sign Here's a picture of one of those radar speed signs. They are cheap, and they work to get many people to slow down. They involve this principle: If you give people feedback on their level of compliance, many of them will improve their compliance.

This speed sign, in Sweden, has another twist. It photographs your license plate and, if you are within the speed limit, it automatically enters you in a lottery.

Another principle: If compliance is rewarding, people will raise their compliance. This is distinct from and complementary to the principle of punishment that underlies traditional regulation.

Trash can Here's a talking trash can. This one thanks you when you throw something in. In the Netherlands, they have trash cans that tell you a joke. Take a look at this little video that shows my personal favorite trash can in action.

OK. These things are cute. But, how about some examples from a higher-risk compliance function, such as transportation security?

Pictured below are some happy travelers participating in the Transportation Security Administration's new "pre-check" program. Through this experimental program, frequent flyers who register through their airlines get to use a special line at airport security. They need not take off their belt and shoes, nor take their laptop out of their bag, nor display their toiletries. And the line is very fast.

TSA pre-check linePre-check is based on another important principle: Treat compliers differentially based on the risk they pose. Past history of compliance is one predictor of risk. This principle is called "situational compliance," sometimes referred to as "risk-based compliance."

One of the highest-risk government compliance functions is regulation of the nuclear power industry. This is an area where we cannot afford non-compliance. Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is pioneering another compliance principle called "performance-based regulation."

Nuclear plant schematic This picture shows a high level schematic of a nuclear reactor. The NRC used to have volumes and volumes of regulations that specified thousands of procedures necessary to keep nuclear power "safe." Hundreds of such procedures, for example, pertained to reactors' cooling pipes.

Many of those procedures have now been replaced with performance standards. For example, there might be a performance standard that says cooling-water pipes need to be able to withstand so many pounds per square inch of pressure.

This form of regulation does two things. First, and foremost, it makes the plants safer. We no longer rely on welding procedures and pipe construction procedures — instead, we focus on the safety bottom line.

But there is another benefit. In some cases compliance may be less expensive — for NRC inspectors, testing pipe-pressure standards is simpler than inspecting all the procedures. Nuclear-plant operators are now innovating ways to meet the performance standards, and they are learning from one another. Sometimes they can lower their burden of compliance. This dynamic has the potential to create a learning system whereby we are continuously finding better ways to build and operate nuclear-power plants.

These are a few promising best practices. With a little imagination and creative engineering, you can deploy these principles to win voluntary compliance in a wide range of functions. You cannot and should not eliminate enforcement; some people simply defy the expectations. Yet you can raise total compliance and reduce the cost to government and the burden on the complier.


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