Why customers get attention and record keeping doesn’t – and what you can learn about compliance from deterrence theory

“Too busy to keep records” isn’t an uncommon statement from process workers who aren’t doing what they should be doing (ie. keeping records).

“Too busy to serve customers” though isn’t generally the same problem.

Why is that?

Are officers all so amazingly fired up to complete their health inspection, or approve a development application that they just can’t take the additional minutes to keep records?


They’re responding to incentives based on what is more likely to cause them a problem.

Simply, customers get served because they complain when they don’t. In government, it’s particularly likely, because there’s no other provider.

This makes getting caught very likely for whoever should have been serving them, and so they get served first.

What we’re seeing in action is what Deterrence theory refers to as the “Certainty” principle.

Deterrence theory is (in essence) the study of how to deter people from committing crimes.

There are three basic components:

  1. Certainty – the likelihood of getting caught.
  2. Celerity – the speed of the consequences.
  3. Severity – how severe a punishment might be.

For a long time, focus was on severity as highest deterrent, and that where many of us instinctively go. Research however has shown that this isn’t the case. In many cases, research has shown that a higher severity punishment actually has the effect of increasing the rate of offence.

Research has instead shown that the perception of certainty of punishment is the clearest deterrent, and this is what our customer service rep is reacting to.

They know they should be keeping records, they know there are fines and penalties. They also likely know that almost no one has ever had to face them, they also probably know that the Records team doesn’t have a budget allocation for anything like the number of compliance audits that they should.

They know with a high level of certainty, that they’re unlikely to be caught – and so penalties don’t matter.

Priority number one for an effective compliance regime should be creating certainty that people who are not keeping records will be caught.

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