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First published on Voices for Transparency
Transparency International‘s social accountability coordinator Mahmoud Farag has written an inspirational series of articles on how we can get more people engaged in fighting corruption. The series is aimed not only at organisations working in the social justice arena, but is of immense benefit to anyone wanting to increase their participation in the fight against corruption.
In part one, Farag discusses how civil society needs to move beyond awareness raising and look more scientifically at how we can engage people. In parts two and three he suggests 12 ways in which we can leverage rational and internal incentives. In the fourth and final part he makes suggestions about social incentives.
Click on the tabs below to reveal the four parts of the article.
In January 2018, despite heavy snow, tens of thousands of people organised marches across several cities in Romania to protest against corruption. They are not alone; Transparency International research shows that one in two people think they can make a difference in the fight against corruption. When we believe in something, nothing can stop us — even the weather! That’s why governments push back against what Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary-general of CIVICUS, calls the ‘’participation revolution.’’
So how can we bring more people on board? Or, put differently, how can we incentivise their engagement? It is tempting to think that if we show people that corruption is widespread they will do something about it — but this has been tried by civil society for many years. It is not enough. That’s why Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand call on civil society to stop raising awareness already! This is not because awareness raising is bad. It is because giving people information is only one way of incentivising citizen action. What other ways can we use?
Information is a rational incentive. From this perspective, humans make decisions based on strict cost-benefit calculations. This means that you give information to people about a problem and ask them to engage, they should do so when there is direct benefit for them.
Sometimes this is enough, but not all we do is so straightforward. In many cases, people have the information but do not act upon it in ways that we would expect if we take a traditional, rational view of human behaviour. Research is increasingly showing that there is much more to human decision-making. In fact, in his well-known TED Talk, Dan Ariely makes a strong case that humans in fact are irrational. Much civil society work does not take this into account, and by doing so, we are missing great opportunities to incentivise the engagement of people.
The idea here is not to decide whether humans are rational or not — we leave this question to others. The purpose of this series is to argue that if we want to get more people engaged in the fight against corruption, we need to design incentives that leverage the different dimensions of human behaviour. What can we borrow from behavioural science to help us?
Farag has put together a range of ideas to help get more people engaged — and sustain that engagement — in the fight against corruption. In total, there are 15 incentives that fall loosely into three categories: rational, internal and social incentives. For each incentive, he supplies examples and some concrete ideas on how it can be applied.
The goal is not to recommend one set of incentives over the other but rather to have a menu of possibilities from which to choose. The choice would depend on context!
Rational incentives are based on rational choice theory — the assumption that humans take decisions based on perceived costs and benefits and are driven mostly by their own individualistic, personal desires. Under this view, humans are assumed to think logically and by doing so they are able to take decisions in their own personal favour.
Let’s face it: if you don’t feel that you can make a change then why would you try? People need to see that their actions have tangible results — only then can we keep them engaged or get them to engage in the first place.
We call this tangible result a quick win. To frame results as quick wins, you need first to turn big goals into smaller, realistic objectives. For example, a campaign for an anti-corruption law may start with supporting the election of clean parliamentary candidates before moving on to pushing for regulatory or legislative change.
Some concrete ideas:
It is very straightforward: People will engage if the information they receive is clear, new and relevant. Information has to be clear for people to understand; it has to tell something new that they did not know before, and it has to be received by the people who care most about it. In the U.S., it was found that people are more willing to engage and deliberate in public affairs — among each other or with public authorities — when they were given accurate information that the system is less corrupt than they thought.
If people think they will get something in return, they are more likely engage. In order to incentivise volunteering, ReAcción, an NGO in Paraguay, trains high school and university students on basic administrative process such as learning about laws relevant to their voluntary work and how to use government open data portals and the group’s unique visualisation tools, and pressure points for influence. Students get new knowledge and skills for their efforts — and this training makes their work easier and more meaningful. Similarly, as part of the Integrity Pacts project, ActionAid Italy trains monitors on open data and mapping so that they have the tools they need to monitor the renovation of an archaeological site.
Can giving money to voters increase voter turnout? This might sound like a crazy question, I know! But the rationale of Stephen Carter, Professor at Yale Law School, is simple: why punish people who don’t vote when you could reward them instead? What does giving money to voters have to do with engaging in the fight against corruption? Actually, it follows the same logic — giving financial incentives to people will increase their engagement. This is based on how financial or material incentives work in getting people to adopt certain behaviour such as stopping smoking or in how lotteries are used to increase tax compliance in some European countries. Some countries including Ghana, Pakistan and the U.S. have actually introduced financial incentives programmes for whistleblowers.
There are, however, lots of reasons why it might not be practical or advisable to give people financial incentives to engage, but what you can do is make sure you limit financial costs that might act as a barrier to engagement. It is less likely that people will engage in an activity that costs them more than its perceived benefits. For example, if you invite people to a meeting during their working hours, they will be unlikely to join if they see the benefits of the meeting to be less than the costs of taking a day off. Therefore, you need to plan your engagement activities in a way that would maximise the benefits and limit the costs to the people you are hoping to engage.
You probably have a risk register for your organisation. But have you asked people about how they feel their engagement might be risky for them? Research shows that fear of retaliation is one of the main obstacles to citizens reporting corruption. Security goes beyond physical security to include digital and psycho-social security — which Tactical Tech frames as the holistic approach to security.
How many times have you stopped doing something because you felt it was a waste of time? If, at any point, people feel they are putting in much more time than expected or relatively more than the perceived impact, they will stop engaging. Time is precious and is important to consider. This applies to all kinds of online and offline engagement.
Internal incentives are based on the idea that we, as humans, are not 100% rational. Our rationality is limited; we might not have the full picture in front of us because of limited or unreliable information. Our brains cannot process every single piece of information floating around us to take the rational decision, given the limited time we have to make such decision. That is why we end up with a satisfying decision — one that works — rather than the rational decision.
Our behaviours are unconsciously affected by what we see, hear or even imagine, which is known as priming. What if we could use this phenomenon in our messaging and outreach to increase engagement?
But be careful in your messaging! There’s a very interesting thought experiment is called “Don’t imagine a pink elephant.” If I ask you not to think about a pink elephant, the human brain has to first imagine a pink elephant before trying not to think about it. Then it’s too late!
This means that if we build our communication around “don’t’’ messages such as “don’t bribe’’ people will first have to imagine giving a bribe. A negative message is not the first thing we want people to think about. That is why framing our messages positively will have higher impact.
It’s much easier to sit back and live with the status quo, right? It turns out that people are less motivated to take action by the thought of gaining something new but rather are guided more by their sense of loss avoidance. People also care a great deal about fairness and what others will lose, which is why they are interested in punishing unfair behaviours.
‘’We become what we repeatedly do,’’ Sean Covey says. This is one of the most powerful incentives! What we did in the past often affects our future choices. This means that people who engaged or volunteered in the past and had a positive experience will probably engage once more.
This also includes tapping into already existing habits that might not be related to your work. For instance, one Nairobi-based social enterprise organises information sessions where the community gathers every week to watch football matches. People usually turn off lights before go to bed. This habit was used in Turkey to protest corruption. For almost one month in 1997, around 30 million people turned off their lights every night at 9 pm for one minute in protest against organised crime.
Who does not like to see him or herself as a role model for others? People take decisions based on the idea or their self-image. This applies to many things that we do including voting. One study found that more people voted if they were asked “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” as opposed to “How important is it to you to vote?” The success of the first message relied on relating the action to one’s self-image.
This incentive stands on a solid ground. Public commitments have been used for many purposes ranging from weight-loss to personal and professional development by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. So, why would it not work for incentivising citizen engagement? The rationale is simple: people are more likely to take action if they commit to doing so in public. For example, receiving an email before an election reminding people that they have committed to voting for a certain party can increase the likelihood of their going to vote. In India, the Fifth Pillar movement holds public youth oath-takings to not give or take bribes.
Have you ever wondered why plans are so important? Having a plan in place helps people focus on doing things and more importantly stops them being distracted by other emerging issues. This is called the implementation intention approach. For example, asking voters in advance where they will travel from and what they will do as they go to vote, increased voter turnout by 10%. Encouraging employees due for vaccinations to write down the time and the date of the appointment increased vaccination rates by around 4%.An even better approach is to identify any barriers you are likely to encounter and develop a plan for how to overcome them.
People process information in small chunks. This is not about me or you; it is about the capacity of our brains. So, every small step that you take to simplify the engagement process will increase the likelihood of engagement. This includes ideas as simple as giving maps to a meeting venue or directing people to the specific forms they need to complete rather than to the webpage containing the form. For instance, giving students a map on how to get to a health centre increased participation by 28% vs. just 3% when only given a lecture.
Social incentives (so called motives) are based on the idea that humans are social and have a basic instinct to interact and engage with other people. For example, people need the social incentives of belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing self, and trusting others in order to fit within the bigger society.
Why do politicians do it the hard way by going door-to-door to mobilise voters in electoral campaigns? Wouldn’t it be much easier for them to just call or email? This is because face-to-face conversations are more powerful in mobilising people. If you want people to engage, personalise your engagement, even when you use technology. Take this example: putting a handwritten post-it note on envelopes increased response rates to a survey by the Irish Revenue Authority from 19% to 36% in only 15 working days.
Adding a fun element will make engagement even more likely — and lively! Transparency Maroc used drummers and dancers to celebrate the International Anti-corruption Day in Morocco. In 2000, the Citizens Alliance for the General Elections campaign in Korea balanced serious and fun tacticsthat included broom demonstrations and satirical cartoons. Generally, people appreciate social opportunities. In Afghanistan, anti-corruption marathonsare used to engage youth in the fight against corruption.
This is an extremely powerful incentive — watch the Asch elevator experiment! Humans are social and look to society for clues on how they should react. For example, announcing that a number of people have already committed to engage with you gets others to engage; they will automatically think ‘’I should engage because this seems the right thing to do. Other people could not be wrong.’’ In Europe and Central Asia only 3.9% of people believe that most people report incidents of corruption, which is far less than the 21% who actually report corruption. By highlighting such statistics, people may be more convinced to engage.
Do you recall a time when you were too lazy to exercise and your friend or partner got you to overcome your laziness? Some people already have the right attitudes and motivations and just need a little push to take action. Check, for example, the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign. Since launching this campaign in 1983, more than 68% of Americans report that they have tried to prevent someone from driving after drinking. Another example is the ‘’put me first’’ video produced by the New Zealand Transport Authority. The message is very simple: As the driver reaches for their phone, the passenger sitting next to them offers their hand to hold. Both examples show that people can effectively push others to do the right thing.