What’s Your Information Strategy?

For an investment in a modern OMS to deliver full strategic value to the agency, the corrections CIO should drive creation of an enterprise-wide information strategy, and secure full buy-in from executive and operational leadership.

For most corrections agencies around the world, the offender management system (OMS) represents the single-most valuable information asset available to executives and operational staff. Like the ERP in a manufacturing environment, it sits at the very center of daily operations, and ensures integrated information linkage across all operational processes. From the first custom-built OMS implementations in the 1980s to today’s modular, commercial-off-the-shelf solutions, the goal has always been to create a system that efficiently captures, maintains and retrieves essential information about the offender at any stage of his or her incarceration or community management. Such systems ensure data accuracy and integrity across all business processes.

Yet the value is not in the technology itself. Rather, it lies in what the OMS enables the agency to do. And in that sense, an understanding of all information stakeholders and their needs, combined with an emphasis on the information outputs the agency requires, can make a dramatic difference in the overall value the asset delivers.

From a business perspective, the modern corrections agency presents a complex set of challenges that seemingly are never ending. These challenges exist at both the operational-facility level, as well as at the macro-administrative level, spanning the entire enterprise of secure facilities and community corrections offices. No matter the jurisdiction, this complex landscape is characterized by well-established, dynamic legislative requirements, strict internal policies and procedures related to safety and security, a growing emphasis on improved outcomes for offenders re-entering the community, and an ever-present drive for operational cost efficiency. Each of these broad categories carries with it a staggering array of questions and information requirements. Too often, however, the process of planning the OMS modernization project and selecting a solution provider fails to place adequate emphasis on the agency’s information strategy. In many cases, the procurement process actually reveals that the agency lacks such a strategy altogether.

In conversations with CIOs at conferences and onsite meetings, we typically pose a brief, but essential question: “What’s your information strategy?”  Occasionally we will receive clear, focused responses about the desire for improved reporting and analysis to enable better decision-making and operational performance. More often than not though, we receive either a blank look or an acknowledgement that the agency lacks a strategic approach to use of its information.

What do we mean by an information strategy? The answer is not “whatever the agency needs for information to answer its important questions,” for that is not a strategy; that’s a desire to be “all things for all people,” an approach that lacks definition and has no practical chance for success. Rather, for the modern corrections agency, an information strategy incorporates a number of carefully considered, well-defined fundamental questions:

  1. What are we trying to achieve? Such a question gets at the very heart of the agency’s mission over a defined period of time. For example, over the next five years, is the agency primarily focused on operational efficiency (capacity planning; facility optimization; logistics optimization; staff training, etc.) or improved offender outcomes and reduced recidivism (program creation, management and effectiveness; third-party collaboration; graduated penalties for parole violations, etc.)? Granted, it can be argued that the agency will establish goals to address all of those objectives, but understanding which of those represent the highest priority will help to define the need for information to support the objective and measure progress against it. For example, an Australian-based agency has established a very public goal to reduce recidivism by 10% over the four years ending in 2020. That objective involves planning and collaboration across agency and third-party organizations focused on successful offender re-entry, and drives specific output requirements from the OMS.
  2. Who needs to be part of the information strategy discussion? How engaged is the executive team in the definition of critical questions and information outputs? Do operational managers have a say in the key questions that are to be addressed, and what the key measures should be? Like any successful initiative to drive achievement of strategic objectives, leaders at multiple levels of the organization need to participate in defining information outputs. If such leaders are involved from the beginning, they more quickly take ownership of the processes and behaviors necessary to improve performance and outcomes. Their early engagement will be directly reflected in the results that are achieved, and will place the agency in a better position to modify actions if the information indicates that a course correction is needed.
  3. What’s the information catalyst? Does operational activity drive information gathering or do information requirements drive changes to operational processes? In an environment where safety and security are paramount, and operational processes have been established over decades, it’s easy to assume that operational activity drives the information that’s captured. However, the most proactive agencies view this in reverse. It’s well understood that no policy or procedure will be adopted if it threatens to compromise safety or security. Yet, by focusing on sound information-driven objectives, smart agency leaders recognize that they can produce positive change without compromising the mission. For illustration, consider this in a business context. A business with global reach has quality products, and capable marketing and sales people in key regions. They approach their sales activities without an information-based set of objectives, choosing instead to go about marketing and selling as they have always done. They will wait to see what happens at the end of the year. Would you invest in that company? Clear, information-driven objectives drive behavior, and the OMS contains the raw materials necessary to track progress against every goal.
  4. How is our information community defined? What stakeholders does the agency need to satisfy across the justice and public safety spectrum, and who is responsible for engaging with them to understand their needs? Does the agency have the people and processes in place to work with external agencies, third-parties and academic researchers to effectively understand and support their diverse information requirements? Some will say this is where the job becomes too hard, that satisfying information needs across such a broad spectrum is infeasible and unnecessary. Yet every correctional leader will tell you that addressing the myriad complex challenges that agencies face today requires a well-defined network of like-minded people and organizations if real change is to be achieved. Information sharing and collaboration go hand in hand, and the best agencies place a high value on engagement with those who have a stake in the outcome.
  5. What new skillsets are required for an increased emphasis on information-driven objectives? By design, the OMS contains much of the raw data necessary to address virtually any question the agency can pose. And the most modern systems include a sophisticated set of reporting and analytical tools to enable data exploration, discovery, visualization and presentation. But these tools can’t drive themselves. Part of the agency’s information strategy has to include a plan to build a team of specialized analysts who are skilled across the four main areas of data analytics: descriptive, diagnostic, predictive and prescriptive. The presence of such a team ensures that not only are the information objectives well defined and understood, they are accurately measured, analyzed and reported with accurate, secure data. The reliance on skilled analytics teams has grown dramatically in the private sector over the last decade as the emphasis on information-based strategies have become mainstream; there’s clearly an opportunity for corrections agencies to learn from this trend.
  6. What do we do with the results? What if the information reveals that the agency is not achieving its desired objectives? What level of preparation is necessary to help operational staff to respond to different information insights? I’m reminded of a discussion I had earlier this year with the chief executive of a US-based corrections agency, in which he said, “Although I run a department with a budget in excess of $700 million, I often feel like I am flying blind. We have only the most basic of information reporting, telling us what happened, but we have almost no ability to plan for the long-term based on strategic use and analysis of information. My operational leadership is quite strong, but they are as blind as I am most of the time. I’m quite certain we capture the data we need, but we just aren’t using it as intelligently as we should be. It can be pretty uncomfortable at times when I’m in front of the governor or a legislative committee, I can assure you.” It is not an isolated situation. Imagine the power that would come from full alignment between executive and operational teams on those questions that the governor and various committees seek to understand. The ability to proactively respond that strategic objectives and related measures are in place to enable operational leaders to make changes based on key performance indicators would quickly change the conversation with those audiences. With the right mindset, it is possible.

Successful creation and implementation of a corrections information strategy is neither simple nor is it achieved in a few weeks or months. Given that it touches every aspect of agency activity, it requires focus and support from across the leadership spectrum. Like any powerful change initiative, it may be hard to gain momentum at the outset. Yet it is critical for agencies to ask fundamental questions related to the information they seek if they are to produce sustainable change and gain maximum value from their information assets. For the corrections CIO, becoming the champion of such an approach is an opportunity to be an essential catalyst to drive strategic change at a time when the corrections profession requires it most.

© 2017 Abilis Solutions. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Ken McGovern

In his role as senior advisor to Abilis, Ken provides strategic advice to the executive team by leveraging his extensive correctional industry knowledge gained over more than 10 years. As vice president for marketing and sales for Abilis for nearly five years, Ken was instrumental in the company’s success in securing new corrections agency contracts. As an active member of the Corrections Technology Association (CTA) and the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA), he regularly engages with corrections business and technology leaders on their approaches to address long-term agency challenges.

Ken has more than 25 years in enterprise software markets, with emphasis in marketing, sales, product marketing and corporate strategy. He has an MBA from the University of British Columbia and a BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Arizona.

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