Paper tracking systems in community corrections have been well established through decades of practice. However, they do not lend themselves to operational analysis, and they pose limitations to the scope of quality reviews. The pen-and- paper method of tracking client movement and maintaining accountability can also be time consuming and inefficient.
Once a decision is made to switch over to electronic forms of accountability and tracking, various options should be researched and their vendors interviewed. Commercially available and affordable systems have promise in terms of data capture and retrieval, as well as in their potential to allow detailed tracking of client schedules, movements, and program activities. In changing to an electronic system, however, a substantial investment in hardware, software, and training is unavoidable, and this can make the transition especially challenging for a small public or private agency.
II. DEVELOPMENT AND PLANNING
The most fundamental decision to make in changing to an electronic system is how the computer program and data would be accessed and stored. One option is to use of in-house servers that will contain programs and store data. This option require infrastructure investments, plus a need to build in security and redundancy.
The second option involves off-site program and data storage by means of a web-based system. This option requires much lower start-up costs, but it will require the sacrifice of control over the form and functions available in the program. Web-based systems are designed to meet the needs of multiple users, so structural and programming choices often have to reflect something of a “lowest common denominator” in design.
Many users find the second option proved more attractive. Not only will it avoid significant hardware costs, but it removes the demand for providing security and data storage. A web-based system also allows implementation of the system sooner than would an on-site system.
Information Technology (IT) Infrastructure
In order to have a solid and efficient system, a stable IT infrastructure is paramount. The web-based structure of the electronic accountability system (EAS) has one vulnerability that the on-site option does not. Any down time associated with internet access will also hamper operations. Information can also be lost due to a variety of issues, including local conditions interfering with system access and human error in the saving of data. Managers must recognize this potential and have a back-up system developed and put into place before problems occur so that the orderly running of the agency is not compromised. Even with an effective back-up process, a solid and reliable IT infrastructure is a pre-requisite for an agency to use the full potential of electronic accountability systems.
An agency is likely to pass through several phases and pilot programs in the implementation of the EAS. Significant benefit can be derived from a thorough strategic planning phase. A strong planning process will help in prioritizing what parts of the system are the most critical to learn and in establishing an implementation time line that will ensure that all staff and managers are on the same page. The planning process must include in depth training for managers and administrators early in the process. Without having managers who are already essentially experts in these systems, a small agency may well be “doomed” to learn by experience only.
Transitioning the agency’s data collection into the EAS is every bit as daunting as transitioning operations, but the challenge appears less immediate, so it can be neglected unintentionally. The initial strategic planning process must include an examination of expectations and capacity for data collection. Ideally, data will be collected in the normal course of activity as staff members work with clients using features in the automated system rather than a completely separate data- collection process. Leaving database design and data collection aside as a secondary consideration will result in duplicate entry processes and potentially poor data, and it will prevent full reporting through the EAS. Also, since the use and maintenance of a database is primarily carried out by managers, not including this feature from the beginning further delays managers becoming proficient in using the system.
III. INTEGRATING NEW PRACTICES
The selected vendor should offer detailed staff training prior to implementation of the electronic system. Effective development and implementation processes demand that the experts in the agency be those in a leadership position in order to offer meaningful guidance, mentoring, and training for all staff. Well-trained managers are also better positioned to provide proper and thorough explanations and feedback to stakeholders. Early errors in the implementation of the EAS may produce an extended period of struggle to maintain quality services and meet contractual or legal requirements—a period that could be significantly decreased with solid front-end planning.
It is vital that all staff be given the same information regarding the purpose and dynamics of the EAS. A manual must be developed that not only describes the system’s general usage, but also how to incorporate the systems’ abilities and functions to enhance accountability and functionality of the agency. Creating a manual with common terms and reports and that indicates when and how to use certain functions will allow for consistency of usage and clear guidelines for stakeholders. Such a manual will be critical in accomplishing the task of standardizing staff understanding of the EAS, especially in the process of training new hires.
IV. PREPARE FOR INCREASED ACCOUNTABILITY FOR AGENCY AND STAFF
Errors are more easily disguised in a paper system as after-the-fact corrections and “late entries” are not always obvious. The EAS makes errors and late entries very clear. Once an entry is made in the system it is archived and cannot be changed or deleted without creating an electronic record. Edits are allowed but these must be explained, and what would have once been “invisible” to a reviewer will now be evident. This transparency is a benefit in that it provides agency management with a truer picture of what problems arise in scheduling, accountability, and/or personnel issues regarding documentation. During implementation, however, this new clarity can make system flaws more visible. The agency needs to prepare itself to manage these emerging data.
The dynamic and challenging nature of a community corrections agency means problems with scheduling and compliance will arise; however, an effective EAS allows for more realistic training for staff on how to properly correct entries and work with the system.
V. EDUCATING STAKEHOLDERS, PARTNERS, AND FUNDERS
Any new system that will create a change in process and procedure must be clearly communicated to stakeholders, partners, and funders because it is likely to impact interactions and expectations. Agency leadership must continue to provide funders with pertinent, accurate, and consistent information especially in an audit or oversight environment. Preparing this stakeholder group for the changes in format for information, or in the process for producing it, will allow for a less disruptive transition to the EAS.
VI. INFORMATION SHARING
From an internal auditing perspective, the EAS allows for an auditor to look at usage and information across the agency and at multiple sites. This ability is usually appreciated and will be used frequently. Further, both future and past clients can be researched in the system with a click of a button. Having archived information on clients who return to the program is helpful in educating staff on the client’s previous admission including employment information, progress in treatment or programming, compliance and noncompliance, behavior and other pertinent information.
A key element needed to fully utilize an EAS is a thorough and effective process for accurate data entry. The EAS will have “tiers” of utilization. At its most basic, the EAS can provide scheduling and accountability data that are fundamental to operations. With more complete data entry and with effective training, the EAS can also provide data that more completely reveal agency effectiveness and utilization, and it can support a complete regimen of supervision and therapeutic and case management activities. Reports are easily accessed and can be sorted as needed based on the information the user is seeking. A glossary of reports for staff is helpful and again will ensure standardization.
In addition to allowing analysis and tracking of information specific to each client, tasks—such as assessment updates, home visits, searches or drug and alcohol tests—can be scheduled in a centrally controlled fashion. Staff is alerted to these tasks automatically, and when completed, the reminder disappears. This ability can streamline a number of operational tasks. Data entry is unavoidable, but it can be managed by integrating it into routine business functions as much as possible and by assigning specific staff to ensure information is put into the system in stages.
VII. SYSTEM ACCEPTANCE
Like any system, an EAS is only as helpful as staff allow it to be. Learning the capabilities and limitations of the system and working within these boundaries is important. Realistic expectations are vital to success with an EAS. Rather than always expecting the EAS to be adapted to the agency’s procedures, it becomes essential for the agency to examine and modify existing practices to allow the system’s capabilities to reach their full potential. This is particularly true with a web-based structure, but any “off the shelf” program will have this limitation. While considerable expenditures can be expected with a “custom-built system,” the agency may later appreciate the required sacrifice.
Once the EAS is understood and embraced, managers will come to rely on the system for information and operational activities. The challenges faced in implementation of an EAS should be more than offset by heightened program potential.
- Consider both off-the-shelf programs and custom-built systems. Research carefully the options available, including short term and long term costs and benefits.
- Decide on data storage. Data may be stored on in-house servers or by means of a web-based system. A web-based system allows implementation of the system sooner than would an on-site system. In addition, this option avoids significant hardware costs and removes the demand for providing security and data storage.
- Have a back-up system/plan developed and put into place before problems occur so that the orderly running of the agency is not compromised.
- Begin with strategic planning. A strong planning process will help in establishing an implementation time line, communicating with stakeholders, prioritizing what parts of the system are the most critical to learn, and planning for data capture.
- Managers must learn the new system. Effective development and implementation processes demand that the experts in the agency be those in a leadership position in order to offer meaningful guidance, mentoring, and training for all staff.
- Create a manual. Such a manual will be critical in accomplishing the task of standardizing staff understanding of the EAS.
- Prepare for increased accountability. The EAS provides a truer picture of client accountability and/or personnel issues regarding service delivery and documentation.
- Prepare your stakeholders for changes in format for information and reports, or in the process for producing them.
- Foster realistic expectations for the EAS to improve acceptance.
- Use the data that will now be available to manage clients better, create meaningful reports, review agency function, and make improvements.
Reviewed and adopted by the ICCA Board of Directors
Date: March 10, 2014