The concept of prevention—the idea of stopping a problem before it happens, whether it is disease, crime, or homelessness—seems like common sense. It is more cost effective to stop the problem than to treat the problem after it happens. Yet, we learned that prevention is not always embedded in our education, health, housing, and other policies. Look at what’s happened in the past year and a half. We could not prevent the COVID-19 virus from spreading rapidly across the country because of a weak public health infrastructure. Prevention is not an ideal or practice that will ever go away. Our leadership at the federal, state, and local levels must be vigilante at all times about promoting and embedding prevention in our policies, practices, norms, and behaviors to help us become a healthier and stronger nation as we recover from the pandemic’s adverse impact.
The concept of prevention was a huge concern for the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), whose mission is obvious from its name. NCPC set out to assist six state governments integrate prevention into their policies. The Embedding Prevention in State Policy and Practice Initiative aimed to create self-supporting movements within six states and their communities to promote and implement prevention as the policy of choice for reducing crime, violence, and drug abuse. Each state—Arizona, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, and Oregon—created an embedding team charged with leading the project at the state level.
Community Science evaluated and provided technical assistance to the initiative and participating states. There were many lessons learned and among them was the role of policy entrepreneurs and the underdevelopment of public and statewide organizing strategies.
The term policy entrepreneurs refer to dedicated civil servants who have developed the skills and relationships to work with state government leaders to promote and implement policy innovations (Mintrom, 2000). Our evaluation identified policy entrepreneurs as a major driving force behind past and current accomplishments to embed prevention in state policies. These individuals held several positions in state government, often in different agencies and departments. in the Embedding Prevention initiative, some of them were at the forefront of their state’s embedding teams while others took a less visible role but were ready to intervene if their help was needed. They all had two very important qualities: relationships with all levels of management across state departments and agencies and they knew how to “work the system” to make things happen.
Public engagement and statewide organizing to advocate for prevention were two of the greatest underdeveloped levers of change; yet, they were essential because most of the legislators we interviewed did not believe there was public demand for prevention. The media and statewide advocacy organizations that involve local constituents were two enabling factors we identified in our evaluation.
There were other important factors that facilitated or challenged the embedding of prevention in state policies. The two lessons we mentioned above affirm the importance of relationships, skills for navigating complex structures, and champions who know when to lead from the front and when to lead from behind, in order to effect systems change.
Mintrom, M. (2000). Policy Entrepreneurs and School Choice. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.