King County: Creating a Culture of Outcomes

By Paul Brest, Debra Schifrin
2019 | Case No. SI150 | Length 27 pgs.

Despite its overall prosperity and booming economy, King County in Washington state faced persistent inequities in poverty, homelessness, and unemployment based on race and place. This case covers the period 2014 to 2019, during which the county developed and implemented new equity- and outcome-driven approaches to address these problems. Starting in 2014, the county began shifting its orientation and operations to focus more on preventive social service programs. The county shifted from a traditional procurement model for social services, in which it assessed contract service providers’ performance at the end of a contract, to “active contract management,” in which the county worked closely with service providers throughout the contract period to achieve specific outcomes that both parties agreed upon in advance. Renewal of a provider’s contract depended on whether the service provider met those outcomes.

The case highlights how public organizations, such as county governments, develop and implement innovations. This process includes leadership and operational risks; creating theories of change; evaluating outcomes; effective use of data; relationships with outside organizations like service contractors; and resource requirements and constraints.

The county’s first and flagship innovative initiative was Best Starts for Kids (BSK), a comprehensive suite of programs that focused on early childhood and youth development. In 2016, the county funded BSK via a $65 million annual voter-approved tax levy. The first BSK initiative, launched in 2017, was the Youth and Family Homelessness Prevention Initiative (YFHPI). It was novel because the county was contracting with 25 smaller community organizations to reach communities with persistent rates of poverty and higher likelihoods of entering homelessness. The case, set in 2019, details the opportunities, successes, and challenges of both YFHPI and the county’s cultural and operational shifts so far.

Learning Objective

The objective is for students to analyze King County’s innovative efforts and be able to re-create and evaluate two separate theories of change: 1) The theory of change for the county to transform its bureaucracy to be outcomes-oriented and to engage in active contract management; and 2) The theory of change for the Youth and Family Homelessness Prevention Initiative.
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