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Interview Article August 18th, 2022
Cities • Innovation

What does equity have to do with public value? And, what does public value have to do with equity?

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Listen to @KingCountyWA #PublicServants tell - in their own words - the challenges and rewards of moving from a risk-averse culture to one that prioritizes innovation and equity.

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💪 Creating a culture change is no easy feat. How has @KingCountyWA done it? Read how from the #PublicServants themselves!

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🤝 It is vital for local government to be connected with the community it serves. Read how @KingCountyWA #PublicServants sought to emphasize public value over risk aversion.

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Partnering for Learning

We put our vision for government into practice through learning partner projects that align with our values and help reimagine government so that it works for everyone.

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Over the last nine months, CPI worked with King County, Washington (“the County”) to understand public value and the relationship between disrupting the status quo and improving outcomes for communities. In particular, the County aims to better serve communities who have been historically marginalized - communities that have been harmed by government policies and actions, or communities where distrust of local government is particularly notable. 

As a learning partner to the County, CPI facilitated a process of research, experimentation, and reflection to understand the structural, personal, and cultural barriers that stand in the way of local governments creating higher public value. As part of this project, we sat down with a team of public servants from the County to hear their perspectives on public value and its relationship to equity. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can learn more about this work in our Reimagining Public Value report.

The County aims to better serve communities who have been historically marginalized - communities that have been harmed by government policies and actions, or communities where distrust of local government is particularly notable. 

Let’s start by grounding this in the history of where this project came from. The County has thought about risk for a long time and done a lot of work already in this area. Why the focus on public value?

Sean: King County has been focused on risk for several years. This was sparked by an understanding that to drive towards more equitable outcomes (or, public value) for residents, we need to be willing to disrupt our current way of doing business. With this project, we wanted to think about how we could become more comfortable with risk as a way to ultimately produce greater value for King County, particularly members of our community who have been marginalized or underserved. 

For example, the County hosts student interns in our Public Health Department. In the past, the student’s college or university had to agree to complex insurance requirements in King County’s contract, which allowed King County to protect itself from potentially negligent acts of student interns. While four-year schools were able to agree to these requirements, two-year schools were not. This is an example of us trying to protect ourselves from risk. Something we realized is that we were preventing these great students from two-year schools from accessing job opportunities and career building opportunities. We decided it was worth taking on the risk and dropping the contract requirements if it would allow these students to have access to the same internships as their peers at four-year colleges.

With this project, we wanted to think about how we could become more comfortable with risk as a way to ultimately produce greater value for King County, particularly members of our community who have been marginalized or underserved.

Carrie: A comment we got in one of the employee workshops hits right at the heart of this question: “The workshops helped us to focus on value, and that led us to be willing to take bigger risks.” By getting people to focus more deeply on value and not just risk, we believe even greater value can be uncovered than what might have initially been expected. It is the pursuit of that higher value that motivates innovation and taking on risk.

Jennifer: We are in the midst of a risk culture change in King County. We used to be a risk averse government, and we aren’t any more. We are realizing that taking smart risks can enhance public value. Throughout this project, participants expressed confidence in taking thoughtful risks to create a positive outcome. One participant said “failure is an opportunity, as long as we're learning from it”. This has been a cornerstone of the culture change. If we're not afraid to fail, or alter the status quo, we can take on the right amount of risk to achieve the outcomes we're looking for. Another participant said his project team saw the value they were creating, which let them take the right risks. And another participant said “we are interrupting business as usual and challenging each other to be better”. As we shift our attitudes and behaviors away from risk aversion and toward a balanced-risk approach to maximize value to our community, we will achieve great things.

Why does risk motivate us to think about value? And how does that stand in contrast with what happens right now at the County?

Carrie: In our everyday decisions, it is human nature to need a strong reason to pursue something that's different from what you were doing. And in decision making in the public sector, we often, necessarily, get focused on operational, financial, or other issues and can sometimes lose sight of outcomes and value. 

It is very easy for decisions in local government- and lack of decisions - to support inequitable outcomes because of the legacy of racism and other ways we’ve marginalized people in our institutions and other structures. Part of what we are working toward in this project is to help employees confront those inequities in a way that is impossible for them to “unsee.” Once employees are able to unpack the bigger equity dimensions of the decisions they make every day on their own, we believe they will be compelled to action; to not continue to do things the way they always have been because it's just easier.  

Sean: For a long time, we have been trying to get folks out of the very natural, risk averse approach to decision making. That comes especially from being in public service. We work in an environment of limited resources and competing priorities. And we're humans, naturally risk averse since the first time a predator rustled the bushes behind the campfire. But we have to get out of that mindset. 

Stephanie: Our commitment to advance equity means that we have to do things in a different way, and that means we have to take risks. Focusing on value creation pushes us into this culture change. We want to stop being so risk averse, but there’s also an underlying cultural need to reflect and be more intentional. We want to pause and think about “what are we trying to accomplish?” It’s about getting out of that automated, robotic mindset that prevents us from serving people better.

Once employees are able to unpack the bigger equity dimensions of the decisions they make every day on their own, we believe they will be compelled to action; to not continue to do things the way they always have been because it's just easier. 

What do you see as the relationship between equity and public value? 

Miesha: I think the relationship between equity and public value is a symbiotic one. I don't think you can truly have one without the other. If you're not being equitable and including all communities or narrowing down on which communities have the greatest needs, you can't really define what public value is. On the flipside, you can’t achieve true equity if you don't know what's valued and what's needed in the communities you serve. 

I think in the ideal system, they support one another. They work off one another. In the least ideal system they work against each other. We can’t further our agenda as a County and we're not going to grow our communities without an ideal balance between equity and public value.

Bikram: There are a lot of people in a lot of communities that have been left out. Being intentional about focusing on outcomes that specifically serve those communities is very important. This project made us take a closer look at who has been left out.

Stephanie: When we're talking about things like institutionalized racism, systemic racism, and equity, we have to understand that the status quo is beneficial for some and it hasn't been beneficial for those who have the greatest need in the community. If we're saying that as an organization that we are anti-racist and pro-equity, we have to inherently challenge the status quo. 

Has your perspective on equity and public value shifted over the course of this work? 

It is seeing the impact on the humans on the other end of our decisions that will compel us to change more than the generalities and platitudes will.

David: We are very value-driven at King County and, because equity is one of our most important values, it would be impossible for me to think about creating public value without pursuing equity. I think equity brings another dimension to the creation of public value. If we develop a model that creates equity, this is also a model that creates public value. 

Take our Equity Compacts as an example — Share Power, Interrupt Business as Usual, Replace it with Something Better, and Get Comfortable with Discomfort. These four approaches capture a tremendous amount of what the County learned during this project about how to create public value. Any organization or local government can borrow these ideas from pro-equity thinking to create all sorts of value for constituents.

Stephanie: Progress can sometimes be stunted when we think about racism and equity in these lofty general statements and platitudes. We forget there are real people behind these things. We have to make personal connections and stop seeing just the general. It is seeing the impact on the humans on the other end of our decisions that will compel us to change more than the generalities and platitudes will.

How did you end up in public service? What motivated you to join?

Bikram: When I think about government work, my mind always goes back to people and relationships. For example, my dad drove a taxi for more than 20 years. And then when rideshare came along, many places were focused on the benefits it was going to bring and how competition would be good for businesses. The thousands of people already in the business, many of whom were immigrants and people of color, weren’t sought out or listened to. Now the costs of taking a rideshare have gone way up, and many taxis are out of business. I now wonder if these people had been given equal voice, would things be different today? Would better outcomes have been possible if taxi drivers were a real part of creating the solutions? This project has made me see the importance of those authentic relationships and the humans behind our decisions even more.

Miesha: I came to work in government because my mom did. Our family benefited from social and government services growing up, and my mom later worked in public service. It instilled in me that I needed to go into public service because I know what it's like to receive these services and benefits. I know what the shortcomings are. I know where they need to be improved, and I know how important and impactful they are to people in communities. 

I’ve learned that everyone who works in this space is on a different journey, one that may be different from my own. I think the real “aha moments” happen when you are in spaces where people aren't on the same journey as you. You have the opportunity to connect the dots between different perspectives and experiences. When I can help connect those dots for people, and they can help connect them for me, that’s how we make progress towards our mission.

I think the real “aha moments” happen when you are in spaces where people aren't on the same journey as you.

If you had to choose one word or phrase to describe how you're feeling at the end of this phase of the work, what would you choose?

Carrie: Hopeful

Miesha: Ready

Bikram: Optimistic

Sean: What’s next?

Stephanie: “Isang Bagsak.” It's a notion in the Filipino-American activist community. It means “one down.” We got one thing down, but we've got to keep going. There's more that we're going to have to fight for together. It’s also a double entendre and saying that when one of us falls, we all fall. So we have to work together to keep progressing.

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Reimagining public value: our learning journey in King County, Washington

King County, Washington aims to create a welcoming community where every person can thrive. This report begins to outline practical approaches local governments can take to operationalize their core values.

Read the report

Written by:

Carrie S. Cihak Evidence & Impact Officer, King County
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David Eldred General Counsel, King County Metro
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Stephanie Santos Interim Manager, Ethics, Lobbyist Disclosure, and Public Records Programs, Office of Risk Management Services
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Sean Catanese Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) Program Manager for King County, Washington
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Bikramjit Samra Project Manager, King County
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Miesha Vaughn Tort Claims Investigator, King County Office of Risk Management Service
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Jennifer Hills Director, Office of Risk Management Services for King County, Washington
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