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Reports August 16th, 2022
Cities • Delivery • Innovation • Legitimacy

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

Ann Bruton
Ann Bruton Senior Program Manager, North America View biography
Josh Sorin
Josh Sorin Global Director, Climate Action View biography

Foreword from King County Executive Dow Constantine

Over the last two and a half years, local governments and the communities we serve have faced a combination of challenges like never before – a global pandemic, homelessness, racism, gun violence, the climate crisis, and more. Our obligation as a local government is to do all that we can, as soon as we can, and as best as we can to better meet the needs of all our residents – particularly those who have been left behind for far too long – and the generations who will follow. 

In meeting these challenges here in King County, Washington, our True North guides our work – that is, to make King County a welcoming community where every person can thrive. To turn this vision into a reality, County staff and residents need to work more closely together than ever before. We must recognize that if we want to create different, more equitable outcomes, we must work in different, more equitable ways. It is human nature for this transformation, both in what we do and how we do it, to feel uncomfortable and risky. Yet, we can accomplish great things if we’re willing to take the right risks. We have what it takes to drive change and to create meaningful impact, especially for those facing poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination. 

This report begins to outline practical approaches we, and other local governments, can take to operationalize our core values in all our actions, large and small. I want to thank the dedicated public servants and residents in King County and elsewhere who stepped up to share their knowledge with us as partners and program participants. Your insights, energy, and time have been invaluable in shaping this report and our path forward. This report is not the beginning or the end, but another chapter in the long story of our community. It is a chapter that recognizes our systems are not always set up to benefit everyone and seeks to understand and change that. These changes will take time, but I believe they will help us to solve not just the challenges of the moment, but to fulfill our vision to build a community where everyone, every child, and generations of our children’s children can thrive.


Dow Constantine

County Executive

King County, Washington 

Project background

Why are we here?

Equity. Sustainability. Trust. These are some of the most common values articulated by governments across the country. These values are meant to guide the decision-making and actions of public servants, from the line staff to the executive level, as they collaborate with residents and grapple with the most pressing, complex problems of our day, such as widening inequality, homelessness, safety, and ecosystem collapse.

A core challenge facing public servants is that the prevailing model of government primarily focuses on a different set of values. Efficiency. Risk avoidance. Control. These values have their place, but are incomplete. They were born in a previous century to address a set of problems that are of a very different nature than the problems facing governments today.

As a result, while the stated values of governments have been updated in mission statements and strategic plans to reflect present-day context, the systems, structures, and cultures of governments remain firmly planted in the past. They are oriented around a set of values optimized to cement a status quo that has failed to address the root causes of our communities’ most pressing problems. In some cases, the current model has actively made problems worse - such as increasing inequities - either through misguided action or inaction. The end result is decreasing government legitimacy and a frustrated government workforce and public experiencing the disconnect between what governments say they do and what they actually do. 

How can governments live out their values – and by extension– create the public value they set out to achieve? 

Project background

Over the last few years, King County, Washington (“the County”) has undertaken a concerted effort to reimagine their approach to making progress toward the County’s ‘True North’ mission to “[make] King County a welcoming community where every person can thrive.” The County has recognized that progress towards that mission requires a shift in the way County employees understand and assess the decisions they make, ranging from executive-level strategic decisions to everyday decisions made by resident-facing staff. Importantly, progress towards the County’s mission also requires focusing on creating value that advances equity for the communities that have been historically discriminated against and left behind by the status quo ways of working. While the County has been nationally recognized for their equity and data-informed approaches, they recognized that there is even more they can do to encourage innovation that serves their mission (1).

King County’s ‘True North’ mission: Make King County a welcoming community where every person can thrive.

At a basic level, all decisions involve an assessment balancing between risk and value. While the County has made great strides towards better understanding and managing risk through the roll-out of a ‘risk-value framework’ and a risk appetite statement, the County has spent less time understanding the value side of the equation (2). To balance that equation, starting in October 2021, the County and the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) set out to better understand public value and how local governments can reimagine approaches to disrupting the status quo and improving outcomes.

Our objectives and methodology


This report is intended to provide leaders in local governments insight into what we learned about public value and how to create it.

Our work focused on the institutional, structural, personal, and cultural barriers that prevent public sector practitioners - at all levels - from living out the values espoused by governments that are critical to creating public value. In each section, you will find a general description of our theory and approach, followed by practical examples from the King County working groups as they explored these topics. 


This project started with the basic premise that governments are complex, adaptive systems and the public value created (or not created) by governments is the outcome of a constantly evolving range of countless interdependent factors and actors (3). In complex systems, simple, standardized tools are unlikely to be effective guides for creating systems change and achieving the desired public value. Instead, governments should aim to understand how the underlying values, beliefs, and attitudes upon which government acts enable or inhibit its mission. 

Governments are complex, adaptive systems. In complex systems, simple tools are unlikely to be effective for creating systems change and achieving public value. Governments should aim to understand how their underlying values, beliefs, and attitudes enable or inhibit their mission.

Over nine months, a group of employees from King County Metro, the Office of Risk Management Services (ORMS), and the Department of Natural Resources and Parks participated in a process of research, experimentation, and learning, facilitated by CPI. During the first phase of the work, CPI and King County conducted a literature review and interviews to understand more about what public value is, how to create it, and what enables or inhibits its creation. We then used this research to co-design an experimentation and learning program alongside working groups of County employees. Working groups representing three divisions within King County Metro and ORMS participated in a three-month program to design and test their own ideas to unlock public value by overcoming barriers preventing them from operationalizing the County’s True North values.

What is public value? 

Coined by Harvard professor Mark Moore in the 1990s, the term “public value” originally served as a mirror to the private sector concept of “shareholder value.” It describes the common good that results from the actions of public servants, for-profit companies, non-profit organizations, and others seeking to improve the overall well-being of a community (4). Simply put, public value is the value created for the collective public. We wanted to know, “what does that phrase mean to public servants and other community leaders on the ground?”

We asked more than 30 public sector practitioners, King County community leaders, academic researchers, County employees, and other experts this question. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

While each person shared a unique perspective, we found three common themes in their answers. These are not the only ways to think about what public value is and how to create it, but we found it to be a helpful basis for our definition. Public value has three elements:

  1. Meeting people’s needs. Every member of a community has a set of needs that must be met for them to flourish. These needs can range from physiological needs like food and clean water to the need for respect, belonging, and creativity. Creating public value involves taking actions that contribute to positive outcomes for individuals that collectively improve the well-being of the community. 

  2. Engaging in fair and just processes. Public value is not just an outcome, it’s also a process. Centering equity, trust, learning, and human relationships in the decisions and actions has a corresponding increase in the public value ultimately created. 

  3. Listening to residents directly. Public value is not something that public servants can achieve on their own. It requires listening to the community and creating solutions alongside them. Critically, it requires listening to those who have been most marginalized and are most impacted by an issue.

While these three foundational elements to creating public value are universal, each local government needs to develop its own definition of public value that is specific to its communities’ unique contexts and needs (5). The definition should be reflected in the government’s mission statement, strategy documents, and other visioning materials.

Case Study: Defining Public Value in King County through an equity lens 

King County’s True North purpose is to “[make] King County a welcoming community where every person can thrive.” Recognizing that they cannot achieve this mission without deep commitment to equity, the County views equity’s relationship with public value as reciprocal: one cannot exist without the other.

For example, the County’s Metro Transit agency recently made a policy shift from prioritizing activities where ridership is highest to prioritizing where the needs are greatest. This shift was the result of multiple years of work alongside community members. As one County employee mentioned: “The question of equity and public value is: which [people] we are prioritizing the most, especially [with] the history of disenfranchising. We have more of a responsibility to [create] public value for those who have been historically disenfranchised and disinvested.” 

As part of this work, the County consciously centered equity at the heart of creating public value.

Reimagining public value: a principles-based approach

If public value is the sum total of outcomes of a complex, adaptive system, unlocking public value and improving lives for people requires fundamentally altering underlying structures such as policies, relationships, and resources that hold the current system in place (6). However, systems change is notoriously challenging, time-consuming, complex, and uncertain work, and there is no solid consensus on the right way to do it.

Given the complexity surrounding systems change and the uncertainty of how changes in one area may lead to consequences in another, our research demonstrated that it is best to proceed humbly through a ‘test and learn’ approach. We found that governments often roll out changes through a top-down approach where leadership creates and institutes organization-wide changes in a silo. Throughout this project, we sought to take a more empowering and inclusive approach. We did this by first seeking to understand the system, followed by a period of experimentation with ways to change it for the better, and finally deep reflection on what we learned (7). The key steps to this approach were:

  • Step one: define purpose, values, and guiding principles  

  • Step two: identify barriers

  • Step three: experiment with new ideas

  • Step four: embed learnings and influence the system

Step one: define purpose, values, and guiding principles

Many governments have a mission statement that defines their purpose for existing. To achieve this mission, governments spend a lot of time focusing on improving the doing of government: providing efficient services, measuring performance, and developing decision-making processes (8). While the doing is important, seeing government as a machine that should be optimized can lead to neglect of the mission for the sake of efficiency. When we focus too much on the doing, we stop asking why we are doing anything at all. Instead, governments should not lose sight of the being of government: defining and invoking the underlying values upon which they base decisions and actions (9). Shared values – such as equity, safety, sustainability, and trust - create a common language that everyone within a system can connect to and apply to their own roles. Successfully operationalizing these values can enable or inhibit the government’s ultimate mission. 

One way for governments to operationalize their values is through guiding principles. These principles serve as a brief, practical playbook to bring values to life, regardless of someone’s role within the system. Whether someone is a case worker speaking with a resident, a supervisor scheduling maintenance workers, or an executive allocating a budget, a shared set of principles gives people a common operating system for moving towards their collective goals.

Case study: the four pro-equity actions

King County views equity as a value that is critical to achieving public value, as evidenced in their True North to make the County a place where everyone can thrive. To operationalize this value, the County has established a set of four pro-equity actions that many teams have adopted (10). The four pro-equity actions are:

  1. Share power

  2. Interrupt business as usual

  3. Replace it with something better

  4. Get comfortable with discomfort

The theory underlying these principles is that if County employees across all levels and all departments adopt these four principles to guide decision-making and actions, they will improve equity, ultimately leading to increased public value. For example, the County’s Equity Impact Review (EIR) process aims to replace business as usual with something better by ensuring that equity is holistically and rigorously considered as part of the decision-making process (11).

Step two: identify barriers

Even once principles are defined, institutional, structural, personal, and cultural barriers can prevent public servants from using principles in practice. The first step to addressing these barriers is to clearly acknowledge and identify that they exist. However, it is important to note that openly and honestly discussing barriers can be difficult and potentially risky for individuals or teams, as these discussions can lead to the surfacing of uncomfortable truths. Directors and managers may feel that their authority is being threatened. And line staff, particularly individuals from groups who have been historically marginalized, may particularly feel personal risks - to their employment status, opportunities for career advancement, and relationships (12). There is no one right way to hold these conversations, but laying out ground rules, securing executive-level support, and using a trained, external facilitator can be helpful. 

Case study: fear of failure as a barrier 

The participants from King County focused on bringing the County’s equity values to life by deploying the four Pro-Equity Actions in their own work through a series of experiments. Three groups participated in a workshop where they identified the barriers that prevent them from living out the four Actions (sharing power, interrupting business as usual, replacing it with something better, and getting comfortable with discomfort). A frequent barrier the groups identified was a “fear of failure.” 

County employees, especially those who work directly with the public, often have critically important perspectives on what problems exist and ideas on how to fix them. However, there is a broader fear that deviating from what has always been done or speaking up to management could negatively impact on the community or lead to personal consequences at work, resulting in continued compliance with the status quo. This is especially true for BIPOC employees, women, and line staff, who typically hold less power in the organization and face greater consequences for failure. As a result, problems go unidentified and unresolved, employees feel disempowered, and trust erodes further between government and residents (13).

Acknowledging and unpacking fear of failure as a barrier was the first step to addressing it. By creating a culture where teams can “fail forward” without fear of negative consequences, people across the organization can speak up about problems that would otherwise continue to perpetuate negative experiences and poor outcomes (14).

Step three: experiment with new ideas

After identifying key barriers, the next step is to co-design experiments to change the status quo conditions and try something new in the service of creating public value. Experimentation is important because there is no way to know for sure what will result when we try something new in a complex and uncertain world. By testing small interventions alongside those with lived experience, experimentation helps public servants quickly understand what does and does not work, and it may lead to broader insights that have applicability in other areas (15).

Capturing lessons learned and creating intentional time and space to make sense of those lessons is an essential part of this process - and essential to becoming a true ‘learning organization.’ After synthesizing lessons, there is an opportunity to change course, develop new ideas, include new voices, and create an action plan to further explore and dismantle barriers to change (16). 

Case Study: a snowball of new ideas

To address the fear of failure, one County working group with participants from a range of levels (line staff to supervisor) designed a document to use in management meetings that honestly spotlights both successes and failures from the week. As part of the process, they also decided to bring non-management team members to the supervisors’ meeting to introduce them to the decision-making process and give them a voice at the table. Combining these two elements, the working group tested out an informal process in their weekly meetings where they built intentional time and space to reflect on successes and failures.

From these reflection sessions, the working group discovered that there was more appetite among staff to create a safe space to share ideas, problems, anxieties, and successes. They also learned that anonymity was important to some staff who feared personal admissions of failure or consequences for speaking openly. These learnings led the team to launch a second small experiment where staff could use a whiteboard in the breakroom to respond to a prompt anonymously. Having the whiteboard in a public space helped foster conversation across different groups of people coming in and out of the space and made people more open and interested in talking about issues facing their teams and their communities. One participant reflected: “Before it felt taboo for workers to go into management’s office and talk to them - now it’s happening more. You get them talking and you realize it’s not that scary - and you get to know that personal side of people.” 

One of the keys to success for the group was remaining open to seeing where the experimentation process took them and changing plans based on new learnings.

Step four: embed learnings and influence the system

Too often in government, experimentation with new ideas takes place in a silo. Teams may pilot a new idea, but nothing really changes and everyone moves on. Breakthrough ideas in one department don’t spread to another. To create lasting success, teams need to view experimentation as a learning process: capturing lessons from experiments, iterating, and translating insights into new practices, behaviors, policies, and structural changes to the organization. While this can occur at the individual or team level, leaders within an organization who have the power to influence change need to be brave enough to create the enabling conditions that allow for experimentation (and the associated risk-taking) and be vulnerable enough to make broader changes based on learnings. Doing this involves creating the structures that allow change to take hold and start to feel like business as usual. This may look like integrating changes within existing organizational structures or developing training for staff on changes (17). 

Further, effectively changing a large system involves empowering employees across different levels to take risks and be on the vanguard of implementing innovative solutions. While many local government leaders have made great strides in promoting risk-taking and employee empowerment, fewer have built the supportive infrastructure required for employees at all levels to be agents of change. The process of embedding and influencing involves identifying ways to operationalize the concept of “empowerment” so it is more than just a buzzword. 

Case Study: next steps in King County

The working groups from King County are currently in the process of understanding where participants are best positioned to influence the system to embed learnings from this program more broadly throughout King County. Participants have noted that their behaviors have shifted in small but important ways as a result of the experimentation and learning process. As one participant remarked: “My viewpoints regarding management and their roles changed in many ways. It’s brought me to consider a wider variety of options. I’m open to hearing other opinions and learning to build trust with everybody, whether line staff or management.”

While individual behavior change influences systems change, the County is also looking at what broader changes they should consider as a result of their learnings. While this version of the program focused on internal change within County departments, the County aspires to bring community members into this work in future iterations, recognizing that public value is best created when it is done alongside residents themselves. For example, the County's Mobility Equity Cabinet includes 25 community leaders representing low-income communities with low incomes; Black, Native, and Communities of Color; immigrants and refugees; limited-English speaking people, and people with disabilities. The Mobility Equity Cabinet worked with King County Metro Transit staff to co-create a new Mobility Framework formally adopted by the County that puts those with the greatest need at the center of the policy-making process (18).

Emergent influence: does this approach work?

Over the last nine months, King County and CPI engaged in an open-ended experimentation process to understand how County employees can disrupt the status quo and unlock greater public value through a principles-based approach. Given the enormity of the challenge and the uncertainty about the best path forward, all participants engaged in a collective act of bravery in deciding to engage in this work. And there were certainly moments where we asked ourselves, “Is this going to change anything at all?” As a society, the current challenges we face are so daunting, the systems are so complex, and the actors are so numerous. We embarked on this process at a moment in history where it is easy to feel cynical and fatalistic: nothing will ever change, our problems will only get worse, and governments can’t do anything about it. Systems change is hard; it takes time, and there is a limit to what a brief experimental program can achieve. 

However, even in this short program, we witnessed an impact on participants that provides evidence that this approach can drive even deeper change. For example, participants recognized and embodied important mindset and behavior adjustments that can ultimately lead to broader systems change. More than 90% of program participants agreed that they could apply what they learned in the program to their work. Beyond the data, what has stuck with us is the pervasive sense of hope that something could be different in government and that there is appetite to adopt new, experimental approaches to work. Of course, this program was relatively short and involved only a limited number of participants, but systems change has to start somewhere to ultimately take hold. 

Here are some of the ways that we’ve seen this learning journey impact participants over a short period:

Creating intentional time and space to question the status quo. 

The first step to making a change is recognizing that the current outcomes, and the systems creating those outcomes, are not good enough. As Newton’s first law reminds us, an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Without creating the time and space to question the status quo, the policies, attitudes, power dynamics, and other systems conditions that perpetuate poor outcomes will not change. Further, creating this space allows public servants to interrogate not just whether the status quo is working, but whether it is working for the people they have historically pushed to the margins. 

Participant reflection:

“With busy plates, we can do a better job identifying and exploring efforts or investments that will have a high impact on our community. It’s important to have more frequent or regular prompts to think about other ways to do things rather than just assuming the status quo will be the most effective option.”

Embracing uncertainty and the opportunity to learn from failure. 

While people recognize that the status quo is not good enough or not working for those with the greatest need, they are often hesitant to change course. Trying something new is inherently uncertain, and County staff expressed concern about retraumatizing communities already harmed if they make a change and it fails. Many participants gained a new perspective on uncertainty and failure through this process. They came to see perpetuating the status quo as riskier than trying something different, even if it fails. Further, having a set of guiding principles to inform decisions and actions helped participants feel more comfortable with uncertainty and failure because they knew that the County’s values had informed those decisions and actions.

Participant reflection:

“As long as you’re learning from it, it’s not a failure, it's a success and progression. I never really thought about the motto of ‘failing forward’ until I saw it in front of me. I’ve explained to other individuals in 1:1s not to be afraid to fail.”

Shifting focus from the day-to-day (“doing”) to the core purpose of the work (“being”). 

The routine tasks of someone in public service can seem disconnected from the ultimate mission of government. Whether it is someone spending their day reviewing contracts, cleaning bus shelters, or responding to constituent emails, it can be difficult to see how these seemingly unremarkable moments impact communities. Using a principles-based approach to creating public value, participants could reconnect with the core purpose of their work and remember the human beings on the other side of their daily routines. This connection to people and purpose motivates the desire to progress toward the County’s True North. 

Bikramjit Samra, Project Manager, Office of Risk Management Services:

“With this research project came the confidence to focus on public value, risk-taking and equity. Public value is almost a subconscious thought at this point, the mindset shift has been the focal point for me.”

While there is much more work to be done to sustain these changes and bring them to a larger scale, we are optimistic that this principles-based approach has the potential to spread and help public servants reconnect with the values and purpose behind their work.


Throughout this nine-month learning journey, CPI and King County gained a stronger understanding of what public value is, how to think about creating it, and what barriers prevent government teams from engaging in the transformative work required to build a thriving, equitable King County. We experimented with using a principles-based approach to guide public value creation for employees across job functions and organizational levels. This approach is not perfect - and not the only way to create public value - but this brief program demonstrated that when combined with a humble, learning mindset, using a principles-based approach has strong potential to lead to systems change over time. 

CPI believes that this model - one that prioritizes and makes space for experimentation, trust, learning, human relationships, and equity - is one of our best hopes for engaging in the meaningful change required to reimagine government so it works for everyone. We know this is not the only model that can be successful, and we invite others to share their own ideas on what it means to create public value in the real world. We look forward to continuing the conversation with King County, public sector practitioners, and others intrigued by what we learned through this work.


This work was made possible by the support of dozens of public servants, community leaders, academics, researchers, and others who generously offered their time, expertise, and insights throughout this process. We are particularly grateful to the following individuals for advancing our collective understanding of public value, systems change, and equity.

Adé Franklin, Adrian Brown, Alli Edwards, Amanda Daflos, Andrea Mirviss, Andrew Durant, Ashish John, Avreayl Jacobson, Benjamin Malmstadt, Beverly Parsons, Bikram Samra, Brion Milstead, Bruno Osorio, Carmel Call, Carrie S. Cihak, Ceasar McDowell, Corianne Payton, Daniel Rowe, David Eldred, Diane Carlson, Don Kettl, Don Okazaki, Edwin Brazil, Ellany Kayce, Grace Simrall, Gwen Clemens, Huoi Trieu, James Post, Jennifer Hills, Jeremy Trenhaile, John Kania, Jose Reyna, Justin Entzminger, Lily Payton, Lindsey Greto, Lluvia Ellison-Morales, Lylianna Allala, María Jiménez-Zepeda, Marietess Koslosky, Mark Moore, Mateo Nube, Michael Baskin, Michael Rimoin, Michelle Huynh, Miesha Vaughn, Mitchell Weiss, Nigel Jacob, Ninona Boujrada, Olli-Pekka Heinonen, Omari Salisbury, Osborne Brown, Patrice Thomas, Rachael DeCruz, Roi-Martin Brown, Rona Glynn-McDonald, Sarah Warner, Sean Bouffiou, Sean Catanese, Stephanie Santos, Tania Anaissie, Thea Snow, Tina Rogers, Toby Lowe, Tony To, Victoria Santos

End Notes



  3. For example, factors contributing to obesity include biology, food supply chains, media, macroeconomic trends, education, healthcare options, recreation opportunities, family experiences and more. These factors are connected to each other and different factors impact individuals differently. Source: Sturmberg, JP (2018) Health System Redesign How to Make Health Care Person-Centered, Equitable, and Sustainable. Springer, Australia. 

  4.  Moore, Mark, and Jorrit de Jong. “Public Value Tool Kit.” Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative,

  5.  Reimagining Public Value subject matter expert interview (December 2020).

  6. Abercrombie, Rob, et al. “Systems Change: A Guide to What It Is and How to Do It.” LankellyChase Foundation, June 2015,   

  7.  Abercrombie, Rob, et al. “Systems Change: A Guide to What It Is and How to Do It.” LankellyChase Foundation, June 2015,  

  8.  Brown, Adrian. “On Being and Doing in Government.” Medium, Centre for Public Impact, 17 Oct. 2019,   

  9.  Brown, Adrian. “On Being and Doing in Government.” Medium, Centre for Public Impact, 17 Oct. 2019,   

  10.  “King County Pro-Equity Actions.” King County Employee News, 1 July 2021,


  12.  Sorin, Josh, and Andi Mirviss. “How to Fail (Forward): A Framework for Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector.” Centre For Public Impact, 2020,   

  13.  Sorin, Josh, and Andi Mirviss. “How to Fail (Forward): A Framework for Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector.” Centre For Public Impact, 2020,   

  14.  Sorin, Josh, and Andi Mirviss. “How to Fail (Forward): A Framework for Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector.” Centre For Public Impact, 2020,   

  15.  Seelos, Christian, et al. “The 'Thou Shalt Nots' of Systems Change.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2021,  

  16.  Reimagining Public Value subject matter expert interview (December 2020). 

  17.  Lowe, Toby, et al. “Human Learning Systems: A Practical Guide for the Curious.” Centre For Public Impact , 2022,  


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