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Building Blocks

May 7, 2004 By

There is no magic bullet for information system integration in the justice enterprise ? it is a lengthy, ongoing process. Chasing the goal of integrated justice information systems will continue well beyond the tenure of most of today's political, justice and law enforcement leadership.

The question, however, has become how to measure progress toward that goal.

It is often difficult to assess the degree to which justice officials have complete, accurate and timely information to support decision-making throughout the integration process, said Kelly Harris, deputy executive director of SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics

An easier and less costly metric is simply to note steps jurisdictions completed in the integration process, according to a recent SEARCH brief co-authored by Harris -- Measuring Progress: A Summary of Key Milestones in Support of Justice Integration.

SEARCH's recommendations not only offer a means to measure progress, but in some ways help provide a roadmap to integration.

Useful Roadmap

Through work over the years, Harris said SEARCH has found key best practices and critical success factors.

"These nine milestones are the key steps -- the best practices. Each one has multiple activities and initiatives underneath them. These are very high, 100,000-foot level things that justice folks have to do as they move through the successful integration of their information systems," she said.

Justice integration milestones stem from the practical observation that challenges are not that different from one jurisdiction to another.

"Often when you have interoperability or information-sharing projects that involve a multitude of stakeholders, you have different views of what success is and how you measure it," said Lt. Col. Jeff Harmon, deputy chief of the Maine State Police. "SEARCH's milestones will be very useful as we go forward with different projects."

Harmon said following the milestones could help remove turf issues from the planning process. "You are looking at things more from a systems standpoint," he said. "Of course, every organization has its own priorities, but those priorities may not give you the best immediate value or best results for the whole system."

According to the SEARCH brief, each milestone represents a building block that enhances work done in the preceding milestone. They provide a series of steps to build a solid operational, technical and policy foundation for a successful integrated justice initiative.

"The justice enterprise isn't like a company with one CEO," said Harris. "You really have multiple CEOs -- chiefs of police, judges and many different elected officials -- involved in these enterprise systems."

As with all government institutions, the justice enterprise leadership changes over time. "We've seen many efforts go way down the road toward completion," she added. "Then key leaders leave after their term is over, and the initiative can literally fall apart."

Maintaining an enduring structure, commitment and cohesiveness throughout the life cycle of justice projects is often a challenge. Integration is a process, not merely a project, she said, and it is characterized by many years of planning, implementing, supporting, managing, enhancing and evaluating various systems that make up the justice enterprise.

Integration and information sharing require cooperation over the long haul from agencies involved, said Harris, which makes measuring progress more important so everyone recognizes that progress is being made.

"When technology came on the scene, we saw the pervasive idea that with computerization and electronic interchanges, things would automatically be better. Agencies would need less staff and save money," she said. "Then there were all these major failures -- not just in justice, but also in the private and public sectors generally. People now understand that simply throwing money at technology is not the end all. That alone does not make you successful."

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