Creating public value through design thinking in policy: The case of Kansas’ prison system

In 2008, for the first time in the history of the United States, more than 1% of the adult American adult population was incarcerated. The prison population had increased approximately sevenfold since 1970, the US imprisoned more types of criminal offenders than any other country, and it kept them in prison longer. Here Jo Luetjens reports on work with her ANZSOG colleague Prof Michael Mintrom on how design thinking drove the introduction of an investment approach in the US state of Kansas. Early results are promising, and many other states have since taken up this approach.

Policy design is often far removed from the world of policy implementation. A consequence of this is that identical policy intentions can result in quite different organisational practices and societal outcomes across different local settings.

This rarefied world begs the question: How would a policy actor seeking to add public value act in this instance? From a policy design perspective, one part of the answer may involve looking ahead and figuring out how to increase the likelihood of implementation going well. From the public management perspective, this would mean thinking hard about policy intent and how implementation could be managed to most effectively match and generate that intent.

Taking this approach, Professor Michael Mintrom and I have recently published an article in Policy Studies Journal on tightening the connections between policy design and public management. Staying close to Prof Mark Moore’s seminal conception of how public value is generated, our article outlines the disparate ‘worlds’ of policy design and public management and demonstrates how the pursuit of public value can be actively enhanced through policy design. Using the example of criminal justice reform in the United States, we show clearly that policy design work can only be considered worthwhile when it takes full account of how public managers, citizens, and clients will interpret and engage with new policy settings.

The basic premise is that public policies and programs that effectively meet public needs are achieved through collective and collaborative processes. When everyone is explicit about the goals they are seeking, space is opened up for broad and productive discussion of how those goals might be achieved and where incompatibilities exist. But what does this look like?

The prison problem

In 2008 for the first time in the history of the United States, more than one in 100 American adults was behind bars. What’s more, the prison population had increased approximately sevenfold since 1970. The system had become notorious for imprisoning more types of criminal offenders than is the case in any other country – and keeping them in prison longer. Further analysis reveals, however, that harsher sentences don’t prevent crime and may even lead to more crime.

This prompted some observers to question the fundamental purpose of the criminal justice system. With corrections expenditures increasing and incarceration levels at the highest rates in recorded history, it had become evident that criminal justice system programs and practices were no longer producing desired social outcomes. In other words, many observed a fundamental public value deficit.

This was particularly evident in the state of Kansas. Criminal justice policies enacted in Kansas in 2006 increased sentence lengths and placed an already fragile criminal justice system under significant pressure. With the prison population projected to increase by 22 percent, policymakers were faced with the prospect of appropriating nearly $500 million over 10 years to supply and operate approximately 1,300 additional prison beds. Rather than spending millions on locking up offenders for longer periods of time, Kansas policymakers looked to the newly emerging concept of Justice Reinvestment.

Justice reinvestment

In 2003, Susan Tucker and Eric Cadora of the Open Society Institute put forth the idea of justice reinvestment. There are two components to this concept. The first is using data to identify and understand the drivers of incarceration and recidivism. The second is to invest in practices that have empirically shown to improve public safety and hold offenders accountable. It is a simple idea which can produce powerful results as it involves working with offenders to reduce the risk of reoffending.

Kansas had taken steps to introduce justice reinvestment initiatives in 2007. Despite producing promising results, these efforts were discontinued in 2009 due to budget cuts. In early 2012, with a new governor, Kansas redoubled its efforts. The leadership team sought technical assistance from the Council of State Governments Justice Centre as well as from Pew Centre on the States. To garner system-wide input and support, focus groups and meetings with a wide range of stakeholders were conducted. Policy designers met with prosecutors, public managers, victim advocates, judges, local law enforcement, ex-offenders, current offenders, citizens and frontline staff.

During the initial phase of the justice reinvestment process, 1.2 million data records were analysed, more than 75 in-person meetings were conducted with nearly 250 stakeholders in the criminal justice system. This extensive effort to connect with public managers in the state criminal justice system and others beyond the typical circle of policy designers indicated a strong desire to make policy changes that could be effectively implemented in the state. 

This effort resulted in a reorientation of the criminal justice system. It allowed policy designers to understand the ‘gaps’ in the system. It also empowered frontline staff and public managers to be part of the solution through the establishment of localised approaches to public safety, including intervention programs, education, job creation and job training for those considered high risk. For example, they were able to implement support programs for people with mental illness, preventing them from offending in the first place or reducing their recidivism.

Is it working?

Typically, justice reinvestment approaches are expected to take a long time to deliver on their potential. However, several years on from Kansas’ full JRI implementation in 2013, results are promising. Kansas has reported averted costs of $2.5 million, and the prison population is slightly below the counterfactual (i.e. the projections for what would have happened without reform). Stakeholders in Kansas no longer feel like they are ‘implementing reforms’ – justice reinvestment has just become how they do business.

This example from Kansas is illustrative of what a focus on creating and enhancing public value can achieve. It enabled policy designers to pay attention to the evidence of local factors that shape policy effectiveness.

Taken seriously, our framework offers the potential for policy designers to do a lot more to inform their work with high-quality evidence on what works, as well as with knowledge and insights offered by public managers immersed in the complexities of implementation and service delivery. Our model of public value creation offers both a new direction for empirical studies of the interplay between public policy and public management and a new perspective on what it means to be an effective policy designer.

Thumbnail image by DonkeyHotey: CC by 2.0