Side effects to be taken seriously

RSM researcher Elisabeth Brein blogs about the perception of risk and its consequences. She is a criminologist and project manager, and her specialist subject is human behaviour and leadership during crisis situations. In this blog post she looks into unintended side effects of change implementations.

A friend of mine recently returned from his vacation in Bonaire in the Caribbean. With a nice sun tan he told me the obvious holiday experiences: scuba diving (overwhelming), the weather (warm and wet) and the cocktails (delicious). He also told me of his exploration of the island in a rented car on roads that are not neatly asphalted and safely signposted as we are used to in The Netherlands. He drove on unpaved roads with potholes full of water from daily rain, with no signs and no streetlights. Driving on these roads calls for alertness and caution. Fortunately, the general attitude of the locals is no problem, no worries. They accept these conditions without complaints and simply adapt their speed. Besides, it is simply impossible to drive faster than 50 kph between the potholes, ditches, crowds of pedestrians and traffic coming the other way.

From an innovation point of view, local government could ask the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs (Bonaire is part of the country of the Netherlands) to upgrade the island’s infrastructure. There must be some budget in there for Bonaire. ‘But that is not the intention at all,’ my friend argued. Local people have been accustomed to the bad road conditions for ages. If roads improve, people would drive faster – which they are not at all used to doing- and will result in far more casualties. So the policy is for the current – potholed – situation to remain.

Interestingly, change and improvements or adjustments for increased safety do not always have the intended effect: more safety.

A potential side effect of change is unsafety. Could this mean that efforts to make the world a safer place are pointless? If so, that’s shocking, and it weakens all kinds of change projects at all levels. So what do we know about the effect of side effects?

Various research projects have shown that strategic change projects should expect unintended side effects; they are considered a normal phenomenon.


Opportunity creates the thief

Such unintended side effects can produce unexpected benefits for the change project as well as negative effects (e.g. Sturdy & Grey, 2003; Clarke & Weisburd, 1994).

A well-known side effect is ‘the waterbed effect’. You can push down on a waterbed in one spot and see a corresponding bulge emerge somewhere else because water does not compress. We often see this displacement in local crime prevention strategies where barriers are installed to prevent crime. The argument can be found in theories of routine activity, offender mobility and perspective of rational choice (e.g. Cohen & Felson, 1979; Felson & Clarke, 1998) where opportunity creates the thief. Taking away the opportunity to commit crime creates obstacles at various moments in the process, making it more difficult for the perpetrator to find an opportunity. The desire to reduce crime with environmental interventions can produce the well-known waterbed effect to other parts of the environment – to places with enough opportunities, fewer preventive measures and less surveillance.


The calculation of effects

If an intervention to reduce crime in one place results in an equivalent increase in crime in a nearby community, the net effect of the crime control effort is zero – only the victims have changed. In the most pessimistic scenario, Eck (1993) even argues that it is theoretically possible to have displacement greater than 100 per cent; if crime prevention measures in the target area result in an increase in crime in a nearby area greater than the reduction of crime in the target area.

On the other hand, the amount of crime displaced can also be less than 100 per cent; when the nearby increase in crime is less than the reduction of crime in the target area. Or there may be no displacement of criminal activity at all.

There are three variants; the crime reduction intervention’s impact may increase crime outside of primary targets; it may increase crime but involve less serious crimes or less repeat victimization; or it may diffuse crime – producing a reduction outside of primary targets (Clarke & Weisburd, 1994).

Also offenders can desist from crime, rather than displace their activity. This explanation can be found in theories of routine activity of Cohen and Felson (1979) and Felson & Clarke (1998). There will always be situations in which offenders merely give up on finding a replacement target.

There are a considerable number of evaluations that show how displacement is an inevitable outcome of crime prevention. But it’s difficult to imagine that all crime prevention leads to displacement. Would crime increase if all security measures were removed?

The logical answer is yes – and the reverse must be true for the consequence of adding crime prevention measures (Johnson, Guerette and Bowers, 2014).


Developing their game

Eck (1993) describes yet another danger. If you strengthen the crime prevention measures, perpetrators develop their game too. Offenders switch targets, their methods become more aggressive, or they change the way they attack, and offenders can switch from one form of crime to another. When law enforcement agencies remove offenders, new offenders come to replace them, and the core of the network continues.

Last, in extreme cases, so-called 'perverse' effects can also occur. This means that results go right against the intentions of the change project (Sturdy & Grey, 2003). As a result, policy may fail to solve the problems and may sometimes even make matters worse.

There have been many studies on unintended and perverse side effects. In general, it has been accepted that successful crime reduction interventions often have a positive impact on crime that extends beyond the direct recipients of a particular project. Different theories of crime suggest different outcomes relative to displacement.


Chosen crime or driven to crime?

If people are driven to crime because of socio-economic factors, displacement is inevitable. If people choose whether or not to commit a crime, displacement is only a possibility. The evidence for 100 per cent displacement is weak, so there is more reason to believe that people choose to participate in crime than to believe that they are driven to crime.

However, as Johnson et al. (2014) argue, current understanding of crime displacement – and how benefits might diffuse throughout the neighbourhood – remains incomplete. Support in the research literature is collectively absent for the idea that crime will simply relocate after crime prevention initiatives focused on one situation. Despite the concern about displacement, and because of the lack of empirical evidence evaluating the effectiveness of a crime prevention or enforcement, policy makers seldom have good evidence of displacement. More study is needed to understand the side effects of change.

Returning to the effects of poor roads in Bonaire, innovating the infrastructure could lead to an unintended impact and increase the unsafety on the road. But side effects should not be used as an excuse for not undertaking interventions, or for not making efforts to develop a better infrastructure. Side effects can also lead to unexpected benefits. In Bonaire’s case, people will travel around more efficiently so there is more time for people like me to spend some quality time on the obvious: in the shade on the beach, enjoying a cocktail and reading interesting research…


If you enjoyed reading this, try another one in our series of blog posts about aspects of safety from the Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). It is intended to act as an introduction to the Centre’s work; to promote and foster the professional development and management of public safety organisations, and to give CESAM members a platform to share their observations and experiences as academics and citizens. Please see our webpage to find out more.


CESAM blog