Make sure your incentive programme hits the mark

Date: March 28, 2018
Share this article:

In a bid to stop people leaving their rubbish strewn around the streets of the United Kingdom, fines for littering are set to increase. For the majority of us who want to live in pleasant and pretty environments, this seems reasonable and even welcomed.

We all know the importance of recycling as well as the benefits of keeping our surroundings clean and tidy. And yet, our highways are edged by miniature rubbish tips thanks to fast food wrappers being discarded from the windows of passing cars, and our pedestrianised high streets are littered with cigarette butts and disposable coffee cups.

Fulfilling a need

The Keep Britain Tidy survey of local authorities within England calculated that the cost of litter pickers and their equipment rose by £100 million within a year, with the total cost coming to almost £1 billion.[1] Since the 1960’s there has been a 500% increase in the litter on our streets, as we move towards a disposable society.

Few would argue that purposely discarding plastic food containers and other non-biodegradable waste does not deserve to be punished, and the above facts and stats reinforce our need to ensure our street cleaners are doing the best possible job. But what has changed is how we recognise these individuals. The councils and, by default, the wardens are now incentivised as a large proportion of each fixed penalty is retained by the local authority.

The weakest links

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that, for many a council, litter fines can now be treated as a profit-making venture. With some councils paying the external contractors on a commission-only basis, it is no wonder that claims of wardens learning to look out for easy targets are rife. Smokers and parents with small children have reported feeling stalked on the high street as the street cleaner waits for their offspring to drop a dummy or toy.

Whilst the worst repeat offenders are ignored, stories of upstanding members of the community being penalised are emerging – such as that of Mr Ellis who found a £60 fixed penalty notice being handed to him by an enforcement officer when his bookmark dropped from his hardback as he left work. The penalty notice bizarrely stated that the fine was for a dropped cigarette end – the fine wasn’t quashed until Mr Ellis took up the issue with Wirral Council. Or that of a non-smoker who was fined £75 for dropping a cigarette butt… that had actually just attached itself to the bottom of his shoe and come unstuck again. Or even the couple who were fined a whopping combined £160 for dropping cherry stones simply because they were the ones currently sitting under the tree.

In fact, wherever a contractor has been brought in, fine rates have increased. In Derbyshire, 245 fines were issued in the financial year 2011/12. Once the commission-based contractors came on board, fines rose to 1,692 within just six months – at a commission of £45 per ticket, the company would make £76,140. And in Ealing, West London, 320 fines were issued in the first week alone[2].

Learned behaviour

The question is whether we are actually changing societies behaviours by giving fines to those responsible for littering our country, or are we actually changing the wardens behaviour by incentivising them to meet targets and make profits by issuing more and more tickets. This question leads to wondering, what was the strategy behind the new fixed penalty notices?

Communicated well, these strategies would have had a massive impact on the whole team and, ultimately, our society. But by confusing the communication by including incentives and misplaced rewards, all going against the plan, and it seems we have created a monster.

Getting it right

This is by far the first demonstration of incentive programmes that haven’t hit the mark.

When designed properly and intentionally, incentive programs can increase performance and drive organisational success. They can be used to shape employees or customers behaviour through highlighting what’s important to your organisation and providing positive reinforcement to those who display the desired behaviours.

However, when designed poorly, incentives put the organisation at risk by paying out too much, incentivising the wrong behaviours or by driving people to play the system. I personally love the story of how during the British colonial rule of India, the government rewarded citizens for every dead venomous snake brought to officials. Before long, citizens were breeding snakes just to kill and bring them to the British – by the time the incentive was up, the snake problem was worse than when it began![3]

Incentives that may appear to be completely rational to leaders can have unintended consequences of rewarding bad behaviour. It all starts at the top of the tree – get the strategy right and document what counts as the right way to get there. It will pay dividends throughout the whole chain.