The Hutt Valley Justice Sector Innovation Project: a case study on proactive approaches to innovation

Robert JonesPolicy Adviser, Department of Corrections

Author biography:
Robert Jones is a policy adviser in the Policy Team at the Department of Corrections. He studied design at Massey University and, after graduating, was briefly employed at Corrections as a public information officer. He then spent five years as a freelance video editor, before returning to Corrections as a ministerial services adviser in October 2012.


Corrections faces many challenges including the use of smartphone technology in prisons, increasing numbers of offenders and the over-representation of Mäori. We need to look for new and proactive ways of working to address these challenges. Proactive approaches to the innovation process can prevent risks from developing into issues, ensure that innovative initiatives are successfully implemented, and assist in sustaining a culture of innovation.

The Hutt Valley Justice Sector Innovation Project (the Project) provides examples of proactive approaches at different stages of the innovation process including the use of a strategy for innovation, a focus on ‘planned innovation’, ‘going outside then going inside’, and the use of innovation working groups. These approaches may be beneficial when considering innovation in other areas of New Zealand Corrections.


The Justice Sector Leadership Board (the Board) initiated the Project to encourage local operational managers to develop new ways of working together to improve service delivery in the Hutt Valley. The Board set key objectives of reducing crime, enhancing support for victims, and identifying and implementing innovative initiatives that achieve the justice sector Better Public Services targets. Phase I of the Project involved the working group identifying ten innovative initiatives that were endorsed by the Board. Phase II focused on implementing these initiatives and improving the connectedness of justice sector services in the Hutt Valley.

The Project was highly successful and won the Excellence in Achieving Collective Impact category at the 2014 Public Sector Excellence Awards. Although it formally closed in 2013, the Project has enabled operational managers to improve the way they work together. It also helped them develop a culture of sustained innovation in the region.

The group continues to meet monthly, despite personnel changes, to develop innovative initiatives to deliver together. The final report on the Project noted that, “while relationships are strongest among the managers in the Working Party, there are signs that this more connected, proactive and problem-solving approach is starting to filter down to the next tiers, indicating the beginning of a wider shift in culture”.

The model has also been implemented in Porirua and Wellington, and senior leaders are considering the establishment of a Wellington District Governance Board to provide oversight of all three groups.

A strategy for innovation

At any given time a large organisation will be faced with many technological, practice or process issues or opportunities that require new ways of working. However, not all ‘innovation needs’ can be an immediate priority due to fiscal or other constraints. Private sector organisations often use innovation strategies to help them identify and prioritise innovation needs and align decisions about the development of initiatives with the overall business strategy. These strategies can ensure that innovative initiatives are successful, the organisation’s ability to innovate is sustained, and different parts of an organisation do not pursue conflicting priorities.

In his article for the Harvard Business Review, ‘You Need an Innovation Strategy’, Gary Pisano notes that effective innovation strategies determine how an organisation is expecting innovation to create value, include a high level plan for allocating resources to different kinds of innovation, and manage trade offs. He also notes that these strategies must be mandated by the most senior leaders as innovation can cut across almost all functions of an organisation (Pisano, 2015).

Although more commonly associated with private sector companies, a similar type of innovation strategy has been developed in a corrections context. Correctional institutions worldwide face numerous challenges including offender population changes, shifts in offender demographics, workforce demands, budgetary constraints, offender recidivism, and safety and security issues. Given these challenges, institutions must identify opportunities to change the tools they use, alter their practices and processes, and improve performance. The RAND Corporation recognised the role of innovation in responding to these types of challenges and developed an innovation agenda. The purpose of the agenda was to identify high-priority technology and other innovation needs for the United States corrections sector (Jackson et al, 2015).

The research group conducted a literature review of corrections challenges and convened an advisory panel to identify innovation needs. The needs were then prioritised against the eight overarching policy goals of the US Corrections sector.

Unlike the private sector strategies, the RAND Corporation agenda was not used to make decisions about the development of specific initiatives; rather, it was used as a research tool to help agencies within the US corrections sector consider which innovation options to pursue. The group also developed an interactive tool so the agencies could adjust the ranking of the eight policy goals to see how the prioritisation of the innovation problems would change based on their specific organisational policy goals.

While not identical, the Project approach had similarities to private sector innovation strategies and the RAND Corporation innovation agenda. The Project was initiated and mandated by the most senior leaders of the justice sector (the Board), who established a set of objectives to guide the identification of innovation needs and development of the innovation initiatives. In order to identify needs, managers from each justice sector agency conducted a review of ongoing or new initiatives across the Hutt Valley, and consulted with the social, NGO, iwi and community sectors. The identified initiatives were then prioritised, and ten were selected for development based on their ability to fulfil the Justice Sector Better Public Services targets.

The strategic approach enabled the Project group to achieve much the same results that innovation strategies are intended to achieve for private sector companies: ‘innovation needs’ were identified and prioritised, the initiatives selected for development were successful, the group’s ability to innovate has been sustained, and all justice sector partners were pursuing consistent objectives.

Planned innovation

The Project provides an example of a proactive response to risk through the use of ‘planned innovation.’ In his article ‘Designing for Change: Problems of Planned Innovation in Corrections’ Harold Bradley defines ‘planned innovation’ as ‘a response to a need in advance of the situation that actively demonstrates the need.’ The opposite approach is ‘adaptive innovation’ which he defines as ‘a reaction to a situation after the fact’ (Bradley, 1969).

Notable examples of adaptive innovation within New Zealand Corrections include the Community Probation Service Change Programme that was implemented, in part, due to high profile incidents involving offenders on probation. More recently, External Advisory Boards were implemented, partially in response to the overseas departure of a prisoner on temporary release. Adaptive innovation is a necessary means of responding to significant events. These types of innovations routinely arise from recommendations made as part of Ombudsman investigations, operational reviews, Inspectorate reports and government inquiries.

As existing issues can pose immediate risks to safety or security, adaptive innovation can often be prioritised over planned innovation. However, a planned innovation approach can encourage changes to technologies and practices to prevent potential risks from developing into actual issues or serious incidents. The structured and proactive nature of the Project provided the working group with an opportunity to focus their efforts on planned innovations.

A simple, yet effective, example of planned innovation is demonstrated by the Project’s information sharing initiative. As the justice system manages dangerous offenders and vulnerable victims, there are significant risks in not sharing information in appropriate situations. Accordingly, the team worked to implement enhanced information sharing processes between agencies.

As part of this initiative, the team noted that there were tensions between rival gang members who were appearing at the Hutt Valley District Court at the same time. In response, Police, courts and local prisons established a new process of planning hearings for members and associates of opposing gangs on different days of the week. Prison and court security staff also worked together to implement a new information sharing process to provide prisoner gang affiliation details. This successful example of planned innovation has enabled the team to identify a potential risk of violent gang clashes in the court, and implement new processes to minimise this risk before a major incident occurs. Hutt Valley area commander Inspector Mike Hill noted that, “they might still live in the Hutt Valley, but we don’t need to bring them together and risk a clash out the front of the Hutt Valley District Court” (Easton, 2014).

As part of the mobile community office initiative, the team also noted that people in vulnerable areas could fail to take steps to clear their Warrant to Arrest for various reasons, including a lack of access to social and justice services. In response, the team established a new practice of deploying the mobile office van to vulnerable areas and encouraging the public to address those warrants before they resulted in more serious action. Inspector Hill noted that, “We’ve also gone to some vulnerable suburbs saying, look, come and clear up your warrant to arrest before[hand] because, if you don’t, you’ll have to go to court or get arrested. We can do it all at the van. It’s not hanging over your head, you’ve cleared it, which is better than clearing it at midnight when we stop you in your car” (Easton, 2014).

‘Going outside then going inside’

The Project provides an example of a proactive approach to the idea generation phase of the innovation process by ‘going outside and then going inside’. The technique involves searching for novel technologies or processes outside of an organisation’s given field, and bringing those innovations back into the organisation. The approach is often used by private sector companies to help identify unarticulated or unknown needs of customers, or to identify services that customers may need before they realise they need them.

Air New Zealand recently noted that they use the approach to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals (Freed, 2015). As an example, their team identified a GPS wrist band being used at Disney World to manage queueing and to track customer movements through the park. Air New Zealand adapted the idea to the aviation industry and developed a world-first “Airband”, which is a wrist-strap worn by children who are travelling alone. The band is embedded with a chip that is scanned at key stages of the journey to trigger text notifications. These notifications assure guardians that their child is safe.

The collaborative nature of the Project exposed Corrections staff to practices used within other justice sector agencies that could potentially be used in a Corrections context. As an example, one of the ten initiatives developed by the working group was the expansion of Operation Relentless from Police to all justice sector agencies. Police often use Operations as a “high profile, highly visible and co-ordinated approach to deployment to ensure that the community has a heightened awareness of a particular issue” (Edwards, 2015).

The Project expanded Operation Relentless so that other justice sector agencies, including Corrections, adopted the approach. The purpose of the expansion was to use all the resources of the different agencies to raise awareness of an issue and reduce crime. Inspector Hill noted that, “instead of throwing just 200 police staff at a problem, we can mobilise the 800 Justice sector staff who work in the Hutt Valley” (Edwards, 2015).

All justice sector agencies worked together to develop individual operations that lasted between three days to a week, and occurred every three months. Each operation focused on a particular theme such as alcohol, youth or families at risk. Once the theme had been selected, each agency developed actions they could undertake individually or with partner agencies. The first theme of the Operation was to reduce crime by raising awareness of drink driving issues, and actions taken by Corrections included conducting vehicle checkpoints around prisons and developing informative pamphlets for offenders and visitors.

Innovation working groups

The Project provides an example of a well-structured and managed ‘innovation working group’. Careful consideration of the structure and operation of these groups can help organisations improve their performance by providing group members with opportunities and resources to implement innovative initiatives.

In his article, ‘Sparkling Fountains or Stagnant Ponds: An Integrative Model of Creativity and Innovation Implementation in Work Groups’, Michael West argues that innovation working groups are more likely to be effective when they are able to operate with a degree of autonomy and their tasks have the following characteristics: completeness of tasks, varied demands, opportunities for social interaction, opportunities for learning, opportunities for task development, and task significance. These conditions may ensure that individual members are interested and engaged in their work, and have a high degree of intrinsic motivation (West, 2002).

The composition of working groups also determines whether they can successfully innovate - “groups composed of people with differing professional backgrounds, knowledge, skills and abilities will be more innovative than those whose members are similar, because they bring usefully differing perspectives on issues to the group” (Paulus, 2000). However, if the group is too diverse they may not be able to work together, communicate and co-ordinate their efforts. West noted that, “the challenge is to create a sufficient diversity within the team without threatening their shared view of the task and their ability to work together effectively” (West, 2002).

The success of a working group can also be impacted by external demands such as leadership expectation, time constraints and organisational uncertainty. The innovation process can be broadly defined as containing two main phases: the early creativity or idea generation phase, and the later implementation phase. Studies suggest that people will be motivated to innovate in response to external demands, threat and uncertainty (Bunce & West, 1995; West, 1989). However, these factors can impact the two broad innovation phases in different ways. They can inhibit the creativity phase, yet facilitate the implementation phase. West suggests that, “where the level of group task characteristics that encourage intrinsic motivation and external demands is high, then innovation implementation will be at a high level.” (West, 2002).

The Leadership Board gave the working group a mandate that included both support and autonomy, and the tasks of individual members met the characteristics required to produce intrinsic motivation. The group also consisted of diverse members from across the justice sector including: a Police area commander, a local prison manager, Community Corrections managers, a court services manager and a youth justice manager. The individual members came from diverse professional and personal backgrounds, yet still possessed sufficiently overlapping skills and knowledge to communicate effectively and work towards common goals.

The group was also faced with external demands; in particular, time constraints given that they were completing the work in addition to their standard roles, and the high expectations of the Leadership Board. As the group developed pre-existing ideas, these external demands did not overly impact the creativity phase. However, they did provide propulsive tension to facilitate the implementation phase. The final report on the Project noted the working group was able to innovate successfully, in part, due to these external demands - “Having a clear mandate from the Leadership Board to work together on improving justice services, as well as an expectation from them that new initiatives and improved services would be delivered, provided a real opportunity to try some new things and deliver on ideas that had previously stalled or not got off the ground.”


Innovation in correctional environments has previously been criticised as overly reactive. Reactive innovation can be a necessary means of responding to significant events to improve the delivery of services and to protect offenders, staff and the public. However, proactive innovation can go one step further; it can identify areas of potential risk, or areas of unfulfilled potential, and encourage progressive change. A proactive approach to the project structure, idea generation and implementation phases of the innovation process can also ensure success.

The Hutt Valley Justice Sector Innovation Project provides examples of successful, proactive approaches to innovation. These concepts may be beneficial for wider Corrections in New Zealand to consider when developing future innovation initiatives. When awarding the Project Team the 2014 Public Sector Excellence Award, State Services Minister, Jonathan Coleman, noted the positive impact of the proactive approach to innovation when he commented that, “these agencies are focused on outcomes, not outputs, and are making a real difference in our communities. It is clear that agencies are continuing to work more effectively to deliver better value and better results for New Zealanders.”


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