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Business Intelligence Led Modernization and Improvement of Correctional Services: Lessons from Abroad

Originally published July 13, 2009

Agencies responsible for managing the country’s public safety and correctional facilities have until recently been free from the budget squeezes that have affected many other public services across the United States. Stimulus money, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), will relieve some of the pressure on those trying to balance state and county budgets. However, those working in the corrections system are aware that seemingly never-ending increases in criminal justice budgets are no longer acceptable to taxpayers or politicians. Unless changes in criminal justice policy can bring about significant reductions in penal populations, directors of these services will need to learn quickly how to do more with less.

Using business intelligence to understand an organization’s inputs, outputs and outcomes can help ensure that an agency better understands the details of the services it provides: what works, which programs are cost effective and which programs do not deliver their desired outcomes or are just inefficient. Alongside the ability to better grasp internal organizational performance, the need to effectively benchmark and learn lessons from elsewhere has never been more pressing.

Of course, measurement for measurement’s sake is as much a waste of resources as funding programs that sound good but have limited demonstrable impact. But the evidence base in the criminal justice system is extensive; and researchers are well aware of what works and what does not work, and the ingredients of a successful program.

This is going to be particularly important in the context of stimulus funding since the pressure to throw resources at “shovel-ready” projects may wind up providing significant money to programs that are already in place, whether they truly work or not. Hence, obtaining business intelligence to assess some of these ARRA prospects before funding them is of the utmost importance.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators has been testing a performance-based management system within prisons in six pilot states since 2004 with the aim of promoting a nationwide system that can facilitate benchmarking and comparisons of different prisons’ outcomes.

At a federal level, the US Pretrial and Probation Service is undertaking a similar process, led by the Administrative Office of the US Courts (AOUSC). The move toward a results-based management system aims to promote an apples-to-apples approach to comparing services and facilitating benchmarks. AOUSC recognizes the challenges of collecting data from practitioners and is hoping to achieve “invisible” data capture as a by-product of officers using case management systems in their day to day work1. The Pretrial and Probations Services System has aligned its measures with those employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons where possible.

While they are not directly comparable, there are many similarities between the UK and US corrections systems at both a federal and state level in their move to improving the use of data to understand performance. In particular, the US could look to some of the business intelligence systems implemented in the UK prisons. Pretrial and probation services within the UK are all managed within the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). The agency’s most important outcome measure is the re-offending rate of those sentenced to prison and/or probation2. In addition, key performance indicators (KPIs) are collected from staff to measure how well services are delivered against national standards. All services within NOMS, whether privately or publicly run, are expected to collect data on the same KPIs.

The same data – some 100 individual measures – are collected across England and Wales. The data is collected using a web-based software application that automatically extracts reports from the legacy information management systems used within prisons and probation services. As in the US, historically there has been no single national standard for data systems within the correctional services or probation office setting. But what makes the system so valuable is not how the data is collected, but how it can be analyzed and shared once it has been collected.

Performance-based management is most fundamentally about communication, not measurement. Analysis, interpretation and communication of the performance measures that are collected are key features of the web-based NOMS performance management system adopted by the UK government. The data can be used by national policy makers when analyzing national trends, researchers looking at program or project impacts, or individual case managers examining their own performance. A local service can measure its performance against a specific indicator as benchmarked against services from similar geographic areas. All of this analysis is available at any computer with an Internet connection. And one of the greatest benefits of the system is the speed with which data can be used to inform performance improvement and practice. Automatic validation scripts within the software have improved the data turnaround time from weeks to days or even hours.

There is an obvious difference in the size and complexity of the corrections services at the federal, state and local levels in the United States when compared to the United Kingdom. But the lessons learned from the UK experience of using information technology can inform the development of new information systems here, regardless of scale and scope. The UK has been widely recognized as a global leader in government-led performance management systems. Such systems, adopted in key areas requiring improvement and reform, have been widely credited with significant turnarounds in policy areas as diverse as early education and justice system improvements.

Ultimately, managers of corrections services need to learn to do more with less. Using data to understand areas of excellence and areas for improvement within a service can support this process. Comparing your practice to others is an effective way to do this. Supporting colleagues who are struggling where your own service is excelling can promote the dissemination of good practices. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses can ensure that resources are allocated according to need and provide justification for increases in funding where necessary. Web-based software can be a cost-effective business intelligence tool that supports that process.

In summary, business intelligence can be a most valuable tool for improving the performance of corrections facilities. We have a lot to learn from what our friends have already done in the United Kingdom. Let us not squander the opportunity to learn more about what they have done as a best practice and apply it in our own environment.

End Notes:

  1. Hughes, J.M., "Results-Based Management in Federal Probation and Pretrial Services," Federal Probation, September 2008, Vol. 72, No 2.

  2. Data on re-offending is often supplemented with proxy measures of performance such as employment, accommodation on release, engagement in substance abuse treatment, etc., which are interpreted as positive indicators of a reduced risk of re-offending.

  3. D. Kettl, “Building Lasting Reform,” in Inside the Reinvention Machine: Assessing Governmental Reform, J.Dilulio, Jr. and D.Kettl, eds. (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1994)

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


  • Louise InmanLouise Inman
    Louise is a senior consultant at Matrix Knowledge Group. Louise specializes in performance improvement within the public sector, with particular expertise in criminal justice, substance abuse and housing for vulnerable groups. Louise’s work portfolio includes projects with local and national government and international organizations.

    Matrix Knowledge Group is an international company with offices in the US, UK and India. Matrix help leaders learn from global best practice to solve complex issues in order to achieve aspirational goals. Matrix offers insight generating analysis, informative reviews of global evidence, effective performance management solutions and results-focused strategic consulting.  Louise Inman can be reached at louise.inman@matrixknowledge.com.

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