“We Want to Do What Works”: An Interview with Bret Bucklen
Dr. Kristofer (Bret) Bucklen, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ Office of Planning, Research & Statistics, discusses the department’s relationship with BetaGov, the logistics of gathering innovative ideas from a 15,000-person agency, and how practitioner-led trials have changed the way PADOC discovers what works.
What inspired you to enter the corrections field?
After high school I lived in Chicago and did some volunteer work, and really got interested in criminal justice and urban problems. I went on to get a sociology degree and then a master’s in public policy. Out of grad school I took a job here at the department and also completed a Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice. My first job at the state was in an executive fellowship program, where I did rotations around different agencies such as State Police, the Board of Probation and Parole, and the Department of Corrections.
How are BetaGov-assisted trials different from other types of research you’ve been involved with?
I think BetaGov really turns the traditional research model on its head, and I’ve worked with a lot of academics over the years on a number of different research products. Typically the research model is that we go after a grant, we may not hear about that grant for six to eight months, and assuming we get the grant, then it’s usually a year-long project, sometimes a two to three year project. By the time we get the results, the fast-moving policy world has changed, and the results we get may be old news and not even a priority anymore. So the traditional model is very slow. A lot of times it’s very academic-driven and not necessarily attuned to the “real world” problems that we’re facing. The BetaGov model is the exact opposite of that: quick results, practitioner-driven, which is huge for me, having staff from the ground generating the ideas and getting the quick turnaround.
Tell us about the devoted email portal that you set up for staff to submit their ideas.
Basically, this started when BetaGov became involved with us. We had identified a couple of problems in our department that we wanted to tackle. One, how can we reduce the use of solitary confinement, and two, how can we reduce in-prison violence that was occurring? Those two issues formed the beginning of our relationship with BetaGov, and they came out of a need to respond to the national momentum to use solitary confinement less, while at the same time we saw an uptick in assaults in some of our prisons. Secretary Wetzel brought in a task force of over 100 staff– correctional officers, counselors, nurses, jobs in all different classifications– and charged us with coming up with a game plan. Shortly after, I was introduced to BetaGov, and I thought it would be perfect to have our staff come up with ideas for how we can tackle these two goals. Of course, Angela [Hawken] and the team were happy to be on board, and we brought them to the training academy for a task force meeting. As part of that day, we started to brainstorm about how we could expand this to the whole department. We have more than 15,000 staff at the PADOC and we wanted to give everyone a voice, so someone came up with the idea to create a portal so that any of our staff can submit an idea to BetaGov. So we thought we could create an email address that we would blast out to the whole department. All of our staff have been given that email address. And we created a form with 5 questions to standardize the process. We sent that form out to the whole department three or four times to solicit ideas, and we’ve had well over 100 ideas come in through that email address so far. Even aside from the content of the trials, the engagement with staff and the process itself has value.
As a leader in PADOC, you have a bird’s-eye view of all the trial activity within the department. What have been some of the challenges you’ve encountered or observed with the ideas for RCTs or the trials themselves? Can you describe how you overcame or learned from those challenges?
One challenge is that it’s a constant effort to build what you call “pracademics.” Most people are not academically-oriented. They’re good at what they do: they’re good officers, nurses, and chaplains, but even after going through the pracademic training, there are questions like, what is random assignment? Sometimes they think they are doing random assignment and they aren’t. It’s a constant education thing. We’re getting more people trained.
Another challenge is figuring out the timing of when and where to do these pilots, because in some cases I get feedback that we’re moving too slow and everybody has all these great ideas that they want to move now on, and then in other cases I get feedback from others saying we’re going too fast and doing too much. My role is to be the go-between in the department. We want to be responsive to staff who are submitting ideas, but on the other hand we don’t want to overwhelm institutions with too many projects that can become unmanageable. It’s a balancing act, and part of what I bring to the process is helping the team balance out the pace. Not everyone sees the bigger policy picture either, so that can be a challenge balancing priorities and managing the speed of the projects.
A third challenge that I’ve seen is that a lot of the ideas that staff have submitted have been incentive-oriented and in other places, like on our social media sites, we have received complaints about the trials coddling incarcerated individuals. What I’d like to see are some deterrence-oriented proposals that are of course legal and ethical, but try to pull in some of those staff who are harder to reach or convince. If we’re truly open to ideas, then we need to hear those, too. If part of this whole process is giving everyone a voice, then we need to encourage them to submit their ideas. We want to do what works, and doing what works is separate from what’s politically correct. I think we have to not be afraid to consider all ideas from all perspectives.
What advice do you have for a practitioner who has an idea but is hesitant to run their own trial?
I would say give us and BetaGov a chance and let us collectively prove to you that we will take your idea seriously. It involves trust. We mean it when we say we’re going to take every idea seriously and that they’re not going to get in trouble for having an idea that might not be the direction the department is going in. I’ve also received a lot of positive feedback from the people who have submitted ideas. They feel rewarded, and feel like they’ve been given a voice.
I want to see so many more government agencies do BetaGov, and I’ve told our executive team here at staff meetings that practitioner-based research is the way of the future. For the first 10 to 12 years of my career I was used to doing it the traditional way, and focusing primarily on the priorities for management. I wish everyone could experience this, and I think [practitioner-led research] has a better chance of succeeding and making a difference.