Reduction in Prison Population Achieved Through Human-Centric Approach

How has making a strategic shift from focusing on the system to focusing on people brought about a reduction in New Zealand’s prison population? Lana Simmons Donaldson explores how Ara Poutama Aotearoa the Department of Corrections’ new approach is reducing over-representation of Māori in the corrections system and is transforming the organisation from the inside out.

The Hōkai Rangi strategy has shifted the organisation’s focus. It’s put people at the centre and has come at a time where the prison population has reduced by 25 percent over the past three years and includes 1,184 fewer Māori in prison.

Hōkai Rangi began as a strategy in response to the Waitangi Tribunal report Tu Mai te Rangi, and then its scope widened to become an organisational strategy in 2019. Its development was led by Jeremy Lightfoot, the then Deputy Chief Executive and now Chief Executive. He says the focus on six strategic outcomes, and in particular, the oranga and wellbeing of people, has been “without question transformative for our organisation”.

Jeremy says the prison population was 10,824 in March 2018 and is now below 8,000. “We are in a great space at the moment, in terms of material reduction in the prison population.”

Deputy Chief Executive Māori, Topia Rameka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa), says the reduction is being well-received by the department’s iwi partners. “They are acknowledging that we are making inroads on the volume front while keeping communities safe.”

Despite the significant reduction in a relatively short period of time, there is still over-representation of Māori in New Zealand prisons – Māori make up 52 percent of the overall prison population, and for Māori women, it is higher still. Jeremy says this is because the “remand population continues to grow in proportion to the sentenced population. It is where we still find a predominance of Māori.” He says the next big challenge is “understanding what the whole system can do with its component parts to have more of an equity focus”.

Hōkai Rangi and Te Tiriti o Waitangi

The Hōkai Rangi strategy can trace its lineage to Te Tiriti o Waitangi through the 2017 Waitangi Tribunal report Tū Mai te Rangi, Reporting on the Crown and Disproportionate Reoffending Rates.

Jeremy says 2017 was a critical point in the history of Ara Poutama Aotearoa. “The tribunal found it wasn’t okay for us to assimilate all people in the same homogenous way.” The findings placed an obligation on the department to develop a Māori strategy that was culturally responsive and aligned to the things that might make a difference for Māori. “That was an important shift.”

There is now an emphasis on listening. “We took the view that the big shift we needed to take was to explain less and be less defensive.” He says it was important to “change our frame, to listen purposely and actively. Particularly to listen to and get insights from Māori.”

Topia says Corrections is known for doing things differently. “We openly call ourselves out, and we recognise that we have a role to play to lead change toward better outcomes. We can’t do that by ourselves. We acknowledge that we operate within a wider sector and within communities – strong partnerships are critical to the shift that needs to happen.”

Topia joined Ara Poutama Aotearoa in 2019 and was a member of Correction’s Māori Leadership Board, Te Poari Hautū Rautaki Māori, which worked alongside frontline staff, service providers, academics, and other Māori experts to develop Hōkai Rangi. As the inaugural Deputy Chief Executive Māori, Topia oversees key organisational functions, including policy, research and evaluation, psychology and programmes, reintegration and housing, Māori outcomes and partnerships, and the Māori Pathways Programme.

He says that the establishment of the role, and the areas of responsibility that it leads are critical to influencing a different approach to old challenges. “Iwi Māori have acknowledged some of the small wins that we are realising, including having a role like a Deputy Chief Executive Māori that has oversight of some of the key levers of the business.”

Topia says having a relatively high Māori staff ratio and great relationships already in place with iwi and Māori service providers has meant Ara Poutama Aotearoa has always been well-positioned to engage in conversations.

Co-design insights

Regarding co-design with Māori, Topia, who is the former Chief Executive of the Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board, says Ara Poutama Aotearoa has “great existing relationships, and we are continually building new ones with those who want to partner with us. We take the approach that there is no one-size-fits-all and we need to adapt to the specific regional needs of our partners.”

He says there has been an increased interest in co-design over the past 18 months. “The department is currently producing our version of a ‘co-design 101 guide’ to support staff to better understand the options and processes available to them. We plan to make this available for others to use as well. It outlines how we approach this mahi, when we do it, why we do it, and what we do.”

Topia suggests a prioritisation exercise is critical to identify what key projects might be part of a co-design process. At the end of the day, iwi Māori want “better outcomes for their people and that means better outcomes for Aotearoa Inc.” In saying that, he says there are opportunities for other government departments to change settings within their own span of control. “Just as any system might realise poor outcomes, so too can a system realise advantageous outcomes – if we can see an opportunity to make improvements, we should just get on and do it.”

Jeremy highlights the shift hasn’t been easy. He recalls a two-day wānanga, involving 50 or 60 people from a broad cross-section of the Corrections community. “They were all coming with insights they wanted to share. Some were pretty angry, traumatised, and hurt from past experiences.” He says, “I sat and listened with colleagues as they told their stories of the impact on them or their whānau. It was hard to listen actively, without immediately saying ‘please let me explain’. Trying to put yourself in their shoes, to have a degree of appreciation. Then working with them to explore what would a different path look like, and how might we go about capturing those insights.”

Personal and organisational change

Jeremy says the shift the organisation is taking has led to very different conversations taking place across all levels of the business. An engineer by profession, he has worked in several roles since joining the organisation 11 years ago. He says Ara Poutama Aotearoa has had a significant impact on him, helping to shape him into the leader he is now. “It’s helped impress upon me the first and most important thing – understanding people.” He says that you can do the greatest job with your building, or technology, and corporate capabilities, “but these must be viewed as supportive to our workforce, having positive connections to the people we manage and their whānau. We are committed to treating all people with dignity and decency, and this is what is going to make a real difference to the services we deliver.”

Te ira tangata – human-centred design

Human-centred design is a fundamental component of how Corrections approaches its work, with a focus on co-design and ensuring key voices are part of the process. Topia says, “The voice of lived experience, the voice of intent, the voice of expertise, and the voice of design are all critical to the process. Buy-in from the start is needed, of staff, of partners and whānau.” He says those are the key ingredients for navigating towards a good outcome.

Topia says “Human-centred design, or te ira tangata, is about making sure a person’s needs are catered to, not placed into a system that is inflexible.”

He says the approach is focused on the importance of each “man or woman’s particular circumstances, their cultural outlook, their history, their whakapapa, their outlook for the future – all of those things”.


Involvement in the development of Hōkai Rangi enabled Jeremy to anchor the change and support the people in the organisation. “To help support them to do some of the hardest jobs in Aotearoa. There is not much public recognition for the incredibly challenging environments our people have to grapple with every day.”

In terms of the cultural capability within Ara Poutama Aotearoa, Topia is positive. “I think we are well placed and have good foundations in this space. While we are still on our journey, we have come a long way. As an executive team, we have unity in purpose and unity in leadership, and I believe that is echoed throughout the business.”

Next Steps

While small gains have been made to reduce the prison population, a key focus remains on addressing the over-representation of Maori. “The next big challenge is understanding what the whole system can do to have more of an equity focus,” Jeremy says.

He sees “massive opportunities and support for a collective justice sector approach. We definitely have support for such an approach. I’ve never seen such a unified pursuit of that goal.

“We need to shift our mode to have collective impact and focus on the things that most powerfully shift the entirety of the justice system.”

Article published in the December 2021 Edition of Public Sector Journal