President and Director Vera Institute of Justice
Few states and counties have a sense of the return on investment they are getting from their criminal justice system expenditures. Money is spent and assumptions are made about outcomes, financial and substantive, without much notion of the real costs or benefits incurred.
Yet this information is highly relevant to the decisions policymakers need to make. CBKB helps to broaden the knowledge base of practitioners and policymakers about criminal justice cost-benefit analysis (CBA), deepen the knowledge and practice in this area, and support practitioners in building their capacity to promote, use, and interpret cost-benefit analysis in criminal justice settings.
1. Can you briefly describe the innovation, the problem it tries to solve and why is it necessary?
In the United States, few jurisdictions have a sense of the return on investment they are getting from their criminal justice system expenditures. This information is highly relevant to the decisions policymakers need to make but is difficult to obtain and often hard to interpret and apply. CBKB helps people in criminal justice agencies, budget offices, legislatures, and programs gain the skills to calculate the costs and benefits of justice related policies and programmes and to bring them into their planning, budgeting, and decision making processes. CBKB uses simple but powerful technologies, including social media, to deliver education and training to a variety of audiences in a cost-effective and convenient manner. CBKB also puts into one place references to over 400 criminal justice related cost-benefit studies and articles along with updates on new studies, conferences, and other resources. Our website, CBKB.org, features all of these materials along with original content in the form of blogs, podcasts, and screencasts.
2. What makes your innovation unique?
When we first started CBKB, interest in using cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in criminal justice had been growing for a number of years, due in large part to the work of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP). However, few resources were available to assist practitioners with developing the capacity either to conduct cost-benefit studies or to include CBA as an important factor in a better-informed and sustained process of policy and decision making. CBKB aims to influence the criminal justice policy dialogue by increasing both the supply of and demand for CBA. CBKB is unique for promoting, developing, and sharing tools and information on CBA in criminal justice for different audiences. CBKB provides technical information, tools, and trainings for people who seek to understand the nuts and bolts of doing economic assessments so that they can undertake such studies, while also offering more accessible information, examples, and case studies to those who may not have the time, expertise, or interest in specializing in CBA (for instance, legislators, legislative aides, or reporters). CBKB is also unique in criminal justice circles for its use of the web and social media, particularly blogs, to share information and resources on a frequent basis.
3. What triggered the development of the innovation?
The interests of our parent organisation, the Vera Institute of Justice, in developing a cost-benefit analysis specialization combined with a growing interest around the country in CBA and other ways to control costs in the criminal justice field. Vera created a Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit (CBAU) in early 2009. Later that year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) released a solicitation for funding in the category of “Encouraging Innovation: Field-Initiated Programs.” This provided CBAU with the opportunity to propose the idea of CBKB, as both the application of CBA to criminal justice and the use of web-based tools to expand practitioners’ knowledge of CBA were considered innovative.
4. Which persons and organisations were involved in the development and what role did they play?
Michael Jacobson, Vera’s president, has a special interest in CBA in criminal justice, with experience as a New York City budget official, city commissioner of corrections and probation, and professor of sociology. Jacobson emphasized the need for CBAs of justice policies to balance the practical concerns of those drafting budgets and making policies and the sometimes more academic interests of economists and analysts trying to define the greatest social good. His background has helped us to think about the diversity of audiences we have to communicate with and what their concerns are. Tina Chiu, Vera’s director of technical assistance, started CBAU and developed the idea for CBKB by drawing on observations of how information in the justice system is created, distributed, and used and of the growing role of social media and online technologies as viable distribution channels for information and learning, and from her interests in knowledge management and sharing. CBAU’s advisory board [see http://www.vera.org/centers/cba/advisers), comprised of leading researchers and experts in criminal justice and economics, offered helpful advice and suggestions about what audiences would want and what resources would be worth adding to CBKB. One adviser, Mark Cohen, shared his experiences and lessons from working with a European Union effort to mainstream methods for estimating the costs of crime, which resulted in an informative but hard to use and unfortunately moribund web site. We also interviewed 10 key informants in criminal justice to get the opinions of potential users about content, design, and communications.
5. What kind of resistance have you encountered and how have you overcome it?
We haven’t met with resistance in the sense of active opposition. We do deal with skepticism on a number of fronts, e.g., whether it is feasible to CBA in criminal justice settings, given a dearth of data on criminal justice outcomes; the difficulty in getting accurate cost information or monetizable social benefits; and the highly political nature of policy and decision making in criminal justice. Helping people to understand what CBA is and is not and how it can be useful in criminal justice setting is the purpose of our work, so dealing with this skepticism through further education and example is par for the course.
6. How did you make the goals realistic and attainable, and at what time will which quick wins be available?
Regarding the development of CBKB, we tried to overcome some of the typical challenges in creating websites by using an existing platform (Wordpress) and paying a consultant to build a limited set of customizations. This reduced the amount of time it took to get the website up and running and allowed us to focus on content. This also allowed us not to be locked into working with consultants, as we train our own staff to use Wordpress and modify the site’s features. We knew that social media tools like Twitter and Facebook would be relatively inexpensive to use and easy to experiment with. We also relied on off-the-shelf solutions and vendors to provide low-cost webinar services. In terms of CBKB’s goals to broaden the knowledge base of practitioners and policy makers, we knew this would be a long-term effort given the complexity of the subject. We decided to produce webinars that would be of interest to both technical and non-specialist audiences, feature guest blogs and interviews with people who use and create CBAs, and write original content on criminal justice topics of current interest. Producing frequent, timely, and accessible materials helps bring readers back to us for more information.
7. Will the innovation have an effect on other organisations in the chain and if that is the case, how will it affect them?
We've been able to partner or work with several other organisations that supply training and technical assistance services to justice system agencies, providing cost-benefit and economic assessment information where they could not. Such organisations include the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the National Criminal Justice Association, the National Association of Counties, and the financial managers section of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association. We've also assisted agencies directly by providing them with information and training. We work closely with our funder to share information about what we’re learning and what we’re hearing from the criminal justice field and to develop ideas for groups to speak with and subjects to investigate; our funder also connects us to other technical assistance providers to ensure that we are sharing information and ideas efficiently and can find natural opportunities to support each others’ efforts.
8. How was the development funded and what were reasons for the financing organisation?
Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance (see answer to question 3). BJA had been getting interested in CBA because of the method’s potential to help jurisdictions make hard decisions during the economic downturn and as a way to communicate evaluation findings and to support evidence-based practices and programmes. BJA had also been receiving requests for information and thought that we could provide this information to the field. BJA has recently funded us to continue CBKB’s activities and to expand our work to include site-specific technical assistance to build CBA capacity in selected jurisdictions.
9. Can you name 3 to 5 characteristics of the innovation that are most essential to make it work?
- Timely, relevant, and accessible content, i.e., clearly explained and tied to specific and practical concerns that people have.
- Networking: connecting with different jurisdictions and audiences to learn about their interests and challenges and to look for topics that would interest them.
- Promotion: letting people know about our work and getting them interested in it by tailoring our communications and messaging to them.
- Serving as a trusted resource. Having an advisory board and working in a reputable, non-advocacy based institution has been very helpful in this regard. We’re not seen as taking sides on a policy issue or program choice – we offer tools and methods, discuss the pros and cons of options, and answer questions.
10. How do you measure whether it is a successful innovation?
There are least four ways to measure whether CBKB is successful: Are ideas and information about CBA for criminal justice spreading through our efforts? Do other people and organisations refer to our work? Are people using what we provide? Is there any impact on policy making, and of what kind? Web site and social media statistics, non-systematic data collection, observations, and anecdotal information indicate that the answers to the first two questions are “yes.” While we are not the only organisation promoting the use of CBA in criminal justice, we are the only one providing information to technical and non-technical audiences and on a national scale. Our work is referred to by others in the field, and we are contacted to answer questions about CBA basics and applications. CBKB is still at the start of educating the criminal justice field on CBA methods, so it is harder to measure our effects on the latter two questions and possibly premature as well. Our most popular blog content relates to answering questions about collecting and interpreting cost data, which is fairly easy to use, but learning to do CBA right involves several factors, and incorporating CBA into policymaking involves many others. Both are long-term efforts.
11. How many people or organisations benefit from this innovation now?
We don’t have precise figures on the number of organisations and individuals who use our services, but we do have these measures of our activity: More than 290 people follow CBKB on Twitter. Since launching in late 2010, more than 14,000 unique visitors have come to CBKB.org. As of August 2012, roughly 1,000 registrants have participated in our live webinars, from 47 of the United States, the Northern Mariana Islands, Canada, and the Netherlands. Statistics on seven of our eight webinars indicate that 8,798 users have either watched a recorded version or downloaded the webinar PowerPoint presentation. People have viewed CBKB’s podcasts more than 2,123 times, and at least 4,036 unique users have accessed our cost-benefit tools.
12. How many people or organisations could potentially benefit from it now or in the future? (Scaling-up) Can or will the innovation be used internationally and how do you overcome cultural differences?
On the information sharing side, there's no inherent limit to the number of people or organisations who could potentially benefit. CBKB.org is available to anyone with internet access; we have had some webinar participants from other countries, including European Union nations and China.
13. Can you quantify the financial benefits?
Given what CBKB promotes, this is a good question! For some things, we can. The easiest benefit to quantify relates to training and information sharing. People can access our webinars and other information on CBKB.org for free, saving them travel, lodging, and training dollars. For instance, the content in our webinar “Cost-Benefit Analysis: A Step-by-Step Guide” is also provided as a half-day workshop at a training for the Justice Research and Statistics Association (JRSA). Individuals who would have attended the workshop save on the cost of registration, travel, and lodging. By centralizing CBA information, making it more accessible and easy to comprehend, and serving as a resource to answer questions, we reduce the amount of time people spend obtaining and digesting information and data, which can help to increase efficiency and productivity. We haven’t yet heard a success story along the lines of a budgetary cost-savings stemming from the work that we’ve produced or information that we’ve generated, but that type of benefit could be indirectly attributed to our work and then monetized. Monetizing the benefits of education and knowledge transfer is generally difficult, but it would be worth further analysis as CBKB progresses.
14. Is the innovation financially viable and sustainable and if yes, how?
CBKB has been funded entirely by a single office of the federal government. We have been and are currently looking for opportunities to diversify our funding to increase our sustainability and to allow us to enter areas such as juvenile justice and prevention programmes that our current funding restricts us from doing. Fee-for-service for training and technical assistance may be possible ways to diversify our funding but will likely not serve as a feasible foundation on its own.
15. Did you receive any recognition?
We've been pointed to as a resource in a number of publications and reports, including New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity’s report “Balanced Justice: Cost-Benefit Analysis and Criminal Justice Policy,” the NCSL’s juvenile justice handbook for legislators, and JRSA’s “Is This a Good Quality Outcome Evaluation Report? A Guide for Practitioners.” We've been invited to present on panels at national conferences. The director of BJA has mentioned us in remarks at conference plenary sessions, and the acting director of BJA wrote a guest blog for us.
16. What lessons did you learn along the way that could be useful to others?
Promote what you have to offer often and avoid the “if you build it, they will come” mentality. We talk about CBKB as resource at any appropriate forum (e.g., when we present at conferences or hold roundtable discussions), seek out and encourage guest bloggers, and use our own social media to support the “long tail” effect so that our content can be reused and recycled. Having an advisory board is very helpful in generating ideas, making contacts, and challenging your own assumptions about what’s useful and relevant. Constantly work on making your message crystal clear, particularly when you’re working with policymakers who don’t have much time, patience, or expertise. Stratify and disaggregate your services and tailor your communications as much as you can to different audiences – one size does not fit all when you’re dealing with a complex issue area and methodology.