People-centred policy: an investment approach to justice

By The Policy Project

Wednesday February 22, 2017

The Policy Project collaborated with the Government Economics Network to facilitate workshops at GEN 2016 where participants engaged with methods and experts in behavioural insights, design thinking and data analytics using a real example taken from the New Zealand Ministry of Justice’s investment approach.

Below are reflections from the presenters and key takeaways for public sector policy practitioners. The Policy Project has more insights from the conference and workshops on its website.

Colin Lynch shared the Ministry’s journey to an investment approach:

The opportunity

  • The justice sector provided an opportunity to test thinking and try new methods.

The journey

  • Began in 2012 when the Ministry of Justice start looking at other agencies’ administrative data.
  • Enter IDI – provided a platform for data sharing.
  • Small steps – apply analysis to discrete pieces of analysis; insights reveal new ‘stories’ to explore in the justice pipeline (“burning platforms”).
  • Build capability and show the value and results to maintain momentum.

Focus on longer-term outcomes

  • Asking “what can we do to prevent crime?” has given focus, as did the relevant Better Public Services targets.
  • Stop asking short term questions and instead try to understand long-term investment.
  • Ask: “if you took an investment approach where would you invest?”– the answer in this case suggested spending in other areas (not in MoJ).

Build capability & expertise

  • Developed a range of teams – operational, research and evaluation, investment, quantitative, policy and bought them together to create a multi-disciplinary approach and to drive synergies.
  • Initially used consultants for actuarial work to develop the investment approach, but deliberately built internal expertise along the way.
  • Deliberately reallocated resources and FTEs to the investment approach.
  • Situating the Data Lab in the building made the process, expertise and data accessible.


  • Key role for senior leaders is to: support the team, protect the space, be the ‘cheerleader’.
  • Take ministers along – tell the compelling story about what it is, how it works and how it helps them decide what to invest in. Help ministers to see the value.

“Ministers are making it clear that ‘welfare’ is a bigger story – that gives the authorisation to think and shift spending across portfolios if that would improve outcomes” — Colin Lynch

Q: How does this compare to the Investment approach in other parts of the system – some are just focused on reducing future fiscal liabilities?

A: A number of people and agencies are trying different approaches. We need to leverage that small community. The Social Investment Unit is a system resource and can act as an anchor, demonstrating how to use IDI data, sharing the tools, building capability and thinking about broader welfare measures. Stats NZ is ramping up to meet agencies’ demand for data.

How its done

Tim Hughes gave a deep-dive into the Ministry’s social investment approach, featuring:

  • Evidence-based policy
  • Longitudinal, person-centric, problem definition
  • Evidence informed, cross-outcome, theory grounded, options development
  • Build on lessons from the past
  • Try new tricks, bring in diverse voices: data and evidence only takes you so far
  • Show the story behind the numbers

Other approaches: behavioural insights (BI)

Dr Rory Gallagher & Lee McCauley explained the BI approach using the justice segment practical example:

Value of BI thinking and approach

  • Takes insights from behavioural science and psychology to understand human behaviour and how it can be influenced.
  • Starts with thinking about what behaviour to encourage or discourage (most policy is about changing or reinforcing behaviour).
  • The process builds and tests options (through random controlled trials) to find the most effective solution. Results of trials builds evidence of interventions (‘what works’) and what can be scaled

How to apply BI: the T.E.S.T. framework

“Always start by asking what specific behaviours you want to encourage or discourage” — Rory Gallagher

  • Target – A SMART problem statement – what do you want to achieve?
  • Explore – what info (data, field research, process mapping, etc.) would help decide whether to proceed? How would you collect it?
  • Solutions – how can behaviours be influenced by solutions/interventions that are: Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely (EAST)?
  • Trial – how will you know if interventions are successful?

What to watch out for

  • BI should be used to understand and influence behaviour not attitudes – it is not a selling strategy for current policies (push that to the political domain).
  • The workshop used EAST to look at behavioural solutions. In real life it is important to spend time to really understand the problem before getting into solutions.

Building Capability

  • Take on the mind-set, but recognise that expertise is required and building capability takes time.

Other approaches: design

Jane Strange shared the Auckland Co-design Lab’s design thinking approach. She used a persona — “Henry” — to illustrate part of the human-centred design methodology.

Value of co-design

  • Can help to “weave together approaches” and diverse perspectives (eg. tikanga Maori frameworks) to give deep insights about people’s lives and experiences (including of interactions with government). Can help bridge the policy-operations divide.
  • Can be powerful in getting the best out of quantitative and qualitative information; we can take existing data and research and merge that with ‘lived experiences’ Provides a disciplined process to collectively reframe the problem, challenge assumptions and create shared ‘intent’.
  • Starts with the ‘user’. Ask “who are we designing for and how do we engage with them?
  • Is strengths based rather than deficit based (think about people’s ‘protective factors’ not just ‘risk factors’).
  • Is ‘democratising’ – gives tools to participants to help solve their own problems/challenges.

What to watch out for

  • Need to know ‘how to engage” – including how to engage people in a problem they don’t know they have – to surface ’unarticulated demand’.
  • Consider all actors in the value chain (e.g. policy, frontline, other functional areas, end users, delivery partners).
  • Who owns the insights? What do we do with revealed risks and needs? How do we use people’s stories & information ethically?
  • Translating insights into action – insights can inform options but it’s more powerful to take the process further to the implementation stage to test options. Design is not just about generating ideas.

Building capability

  • Just start. You can apply the design mind set and tools to a range of work – even with colleagues/ other agencies. Think “build to learn”.
  • Deep expertise will be required (eg. ethnography) if you are interacting directly with users of public services, especially vulnerable people. ‘Kids, don’t try this at home!’

Bringing it together…and next steps


  • There are synergies between the methods – we should think about combinations of methods and how together they might offer a sum of rich quantitative and qualitative information to inform our policy advice.

Building capability

  • We need to build capability in methods – using and applying data, behavioural insights, design thinking – and apply them to real policy challenges.
  • We are likely to need to harness capability from the outside as well as the inside. At the outset we might need to buy-in expertise. But we should ensure we build internal capability as we go.

Improving the policy practice

  • Just do it – we need to be curious, ‘have a go’ with different approaches and build on what we learn – they will help us to ask better questions, challenge our assumptions and bring diverse voices and new approaches to the policy craft.

Appetite to learn more?

  • There is an obvious appetite for learning more about methods and for hearing about applied practice.
  • It is important that we share what worked and didn’t, what was challenging, and how different methods may need to be adapted for optimal effectiveness in a public policy context.
  • We can speed up learning by sharing experiences. The Policy Project is keen to help broker this sharing and learning.

Building on the foundations

  • The Policy Project is working to build a toolkit for the policy community to boost understanding of why, when and how to deploy different methods and approaches to policy challenges.
  • Get in touch if you are interested in contributing to this work – [email protected]

More at The Mandarin: Andrew Kibblewhite on people-centred policy.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective public sector leaders