Compliance with rules and regulations depends on the perceived fairness of those rules and regulations

The challenge of compliance

Compliance is a traditional challenge that has associated costs. Quite a few rules and regulations, whether internal to an organization or nation-wide as imposed by a government, are notoriously difficult or costly to ensure compliance with. Having a rule translated into a procedure somewhere in an ISO manual or a law is one thing. Getting it applied is another.

Take speed limits for example. Few people will, when confronted with an empty or almost empty road, stick to the speed limits as indicated and ‘enforced’. And unless you are unlucky or not aware of where fixed and mobile cameras are placed, the likelihood of getting caught is quite small.

Compliance as a function of perceived fairness

Why do people speed when given the opportunity under what they deem to be the right conditions? Because they believe it to be fair to do so in case:

  • the opportunity presents itself;
  • the risk is limited;
  • the risk is mainly to themselves

Their concept of “fairness”, however personal or flawed it may be, is taken into account when making the decision not to obey to rules.

Let’s look at another example. What about taxes? The compliance situation appears to be comparable. As long as we pay an amount equal to or, depending on the variables, in line with people within our peer group, we will pay, or not. This, by the way, accounts for a higher degree of perceived compliance issues in certain geographical locations, especially in those with a consistent demographic character. And for total clarity, lower income does not align with lower compliance.

Increasing the perception of fairness

The challenge to government or any organisation for that matter: if people or collaborators are willing to comply with a rule or a regulation if they perceive such a rule or regulation as fair, how can you, as a governing organisation, increase this perception of fairness?

I would like to propose three distinct but interrelated elements, which I believe to be a necessary part of the solution:

  • The rule should be easy to understand, not only in terms of the content itself, but also in terms of why compliance with this rule is so important. This means that prior to asking for compliance, you need to clearly understand the very concrete consequences of the rule to those subjected to it;
  • The rule and they way how we want compliance to work needs to be clearly and regularly communicated, in an understandable language with very concrete examples. What is very important when communicating is that the rule should be put in a wider context … If we are subjected to compliance, we should not be treated as children, but we need to be informed on what and why of a rule;
  • Without ignoring the need for continuity, rules and regulations need to be limited in period of applicability. A so-called sunset clause with a required consultation of implicated parties prior to renewal of a rule is an approach that can further increase perceived fairness. If all implicated parties can make suggestions on improving the efficiency of a rule we recognize their input and can increase direct capitalisation on the lessons learned. And let’s be clear, there is a lot of learning in first applications, which can lead to significant improvements in the way in which a rule is defined, which can improve compliance.

Adopting these simple elements may increase compliance without significantly increasing the monitoring and follow-up costs. An upfront investment will more than pay-off in increased compliance in the long run.