BetterBAIL Wins 5th Annual Penn Public Policy Challenge

March 03, 2014

By Kelliston McDowell, MPA '14


If there had to be one word used to describe the 2014 Penn Public Policy Challenge Finals, that would be it.

The word encompasses the participants’ commitment to making a positive difference in their community, the judges panel featuring five individuals with vast expertise and track records of public service in the region, and the five teams’ thoroughly-prepared policy proposals for Philadelphia.

It could also be used to describe the teams’ hard work and the policy forum that took place on March 2 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library.

“The work that the teams presented represents many long nights and a lot of dedication,” said Public Policy Challenge Executive Director Elizabeth Tatum. “I’m incredibly impressed with the teams’ ideas, the way they chose to frame their ideas before the judges, and the poise they demonstrated in fielding the judges' questions.”

BetterBAIL, the competition’s winning team, was certainly impressive. The team is advocating for the adoption of an online bail payment system which could save the Philadelphia Prison System and pre-trial defendants precious time and money.

Now in its fifth year, the PPC is organized and hosted by the Fels Institute of Government, with sponsorships from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Neubauer Family Foundation, David Seltzer (WG '76) and Poor Richard's Trust, National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO), SASGov, and GAPSA. The five finalists emerged from an initial pool of ten teams.

“Every year the teams find a way to up their game,” said Fels Executive Director David Thornburgh. “There's an old line 'success in life is about doing important things and doing them well,’ and I think that shines through in the PPC.”

In addition to the $5,000 sum awarded to BetterBAIL, two runners-up received $1,000 to also advance their causes.

Runner-up Philadelphia MVP shared its plan to implement an evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy intervention for at-risk youth. The therapy aims to increase high school graduation rates and decrease arrests for violent crime. 

“It was a really great process,” said Philadelphia MVP’s Ashwin Iyengar, a dual Master of Public Administration (MPA)/Master of Social Work (MSW) candidate. “We all became friends over the course of this competition, and we’re really looking forward to the next steps.”

iCAN, also a runner-up, presented its proposal to increase college access for low-income students through the use of mentorship and targeted communications during the summer between high school and college. 

"The PPC has been a challenging and intensive learning process that has certainly clarified my perceptions of the challenges of policy implementation,” said iCAN’s Shiva Kooragayala, a Master of City Planning candidate in the School of Design. 

“The support that my team has received from researchers, Fels staff, and potential stakeholders and clients has been extremely encouraging, informative, and inspirational. I hope to continue working to implement our idea, and I am excited by the prospect that our proposal has a real potential of improving college attendance for Philadelphia's public school students."

Fill Up Philly, a finalist, presented its proposal to open mobile recreation centers in high-need areas to increase the number of children benefiting from the federally-funded free summer meals program, while also promoting community engagement and healthy behaviors. Finalist ARC: AlgoRithmic Care shared its proposal to create an algorithm to identify frequently hospitalized Medicaid recipients and subsequently implement interventions designed to dial-down medical costs and improve care.

“It’s been a journey,” said ARC’s Jessica Sylla Estriplet, a Master of Public Health candidate in the Perelman School of Medicine. Describing her team’s initial proposal as “completely different than the idea we presented today,” Estriplet emphasized “how dynamic it was and how much it transformed after interviewing people.”

In the weeks leading up to the finals, the teams fine-tuned their proposals through research and interviews with key stakeholders in the field. The hard work ultimately led to their presentations with the judges.

Among the judges on this year’s panel were Rep. Dwight Evans of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Rich Negrin, Philadelphia Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and coordination; Feather Houstoun, a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission; Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Philadelphia Program Director of the Knight Foundation; and Mark Alan Hughes, a professor of practice in city and regional planning at the Penn School of Design.

Negrin referred to the finalists’ proposals as “great ideas to make our city better.”

“All of the presentations were excellent,” said Evans. “It’s hard to really pick among any of them.”

“Knight Foundation supports the PPC because it is a wonderful opportunity to put some of the best talent in our city to work on civic innovations,” said Frisby-Greenwood. “When the ideas from this challenge come to fruition, they have the potential to change systems and lives."

Ultimately, in a near-unanimous decision, the judges chose BetterBAIL as the Challenge’s winning team. 

With all of its team members having worked previously in criminal justice, BetterBAIL is also comprised of a cross-disciplinary sampling of Penn schools, a hallmark of the Challenge. Sabrina Maynard is an MPA candidate at Fels, while Yosha Gunasekera is a Juris Doctor candidate at Penn Law. Both Cherlyn Lim and Laura Holden Buckley are MSW candidates in the School of Social Policy and Practice.

“The interdisciplinary aspect of this competition has been one of my favorite parts,” said Buckley. “This idea and its creativity would not have happened with only like-minded individuals. I'm really grateful for this perspective and I've learned so much from my teammates.”

BetterBAIL’s proposal aims to address the millions of dollars Philadelphia taxpayers annually incur due to the incarceration of pre-trial, bail-eligible individuals. The city’s antiquated bill payment system proves arduous for handicapped, elderly, or out-of-town relatives who would otherwise pay their loved ones’ judge-sanctioned bail. The team bases its proposal on the current online bail payment system used in Erie, Chester, Westmoreland, and Delaware counties.

“From here, the city is interested and they've been very clear about the fact that they're interested,” said Maynard. “And we think we that we can help to fill the critical gap.”

“Going through the motions it reiterates the two things you really need are concrete implementation plans and money. And just learning that before becoming a public servant is really critical. The Challenge has fostered that in a way in which classes have, but it takes it to another level.”

During the presentation, BetterBAIL set itself apart with in-depth research from the field. This included statistics, quotes from interviews and focus groups, and case studies. 

A handful of individuals who participated in interviews and surveys were in attendance during BetterBAIL’s presentation.

“I think it would be a wonderful idea,” said LaDonna Boyens, a focus group participant. “For those that are handicapped, for those that have health issues, for those that are elderly, just for those that are limited to getting out, it would be better for them and then they can help their families.”

BetterBAIL will now compete in the third annual National Invitational Public Policy Challenge at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and they hope to advance to the Final Round on March 23rd at the National Constitution Center. They will be joined by peers from eleven other universities.

“It's become a signature event for Fels, and it's become a sort of marquee for us around the country,” said Thornburgh. “On March 23, we're going to have teams from eleven other schools who are peers, colleagues, and friends of ours coming to Philadelphia. They know us for this and the quality of the presentations.”

“We feel very privileged to be representing Penn, especially after considering the nine other very talented teams,” said Gunasekera.

“We’re going to get back to work and keep refining our presentation. I think everything could always be improved. So the next few weeks going forward, we're going to work on it as often as we can, see any potential holes, and try to foresee any potential problems. I think that's our best bet going into Nationals.”

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