Freeing information

In 1998, New Brunswick embarked on an initiative that would result in a new way of managing the province’s prison population. Mike Boudreau was hired by the province’s Department of Public Safety at the time as director of programs and planning.

As part of his new job, Boudreau knew he would be heavily involved in the development of the new Client Information System (CIS).

What he didn’t know was that he was entering an antiquated environment.

“When I came here, at the front end of this project, we were very much a paper-based system,” he recalled in an interview. “There was paper and there were filing cabinets, but there were no computers.”

But a lot has changed since 1998.

Through CIS, the province now has a fully integrated, Web-based system that allows several agencies – including the provincial Departments of Justice and Public Safety, the Department of Family & Community Services, Correctional Services Canada and the Canadian Firearms Centre – to share information about offenders on probation or in jail. The CIS, which was fully implemented in May, provides information on an offender’s demographics, physical appearance, security status and any medical alerts that correctional authorities may require. The system also allows digital images to be shared in addition to sentencing details and victim impact statements for parole hearings.

The CIS Advantage

Boudreau stresses the value in a system that shares so much information among so many agencies.

“The CIS has a direct interface with both departments (the Department of Justice, which handles the courts and the Department of Public Safety, which is responsible for the correctional system),” he says. “When people are sentenced, that information is directed to our system. The charges and disposition information are accessible instantly, as opposed to us taking paper documents and transcribing them on to our system.”

Boudreau said the CIS also saves time when it comes to dealing with a repeat offender.

“If you take a life-long offender in a paper-based system, you are writing down very fundamental information – their name, age, background and physical description – literally hundreds of times. With CIS, the redundancies are eliminated. Having the ability to enter a name and address once saves time and resources.”

Also, because of the limited capacity of jails and prisons, offenders are often moved from one institution to another. When a transfer takes place in a paper-based system, the file has to accompany the offender – which takes time to assemble and transport. Correctional officers also have to read it and have the offender’s security classification assessed.

“Now, with an automated system, before an offender is moved from Jail A to Jail B, people at the receiving end have real-time information. The offender’s history, medical needs, security alerts and risks are all there.”

Bruce Graham, a correctional officer at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, said it’s helped to have information at his fingertips rather than in a filing cabinet outside his work area.

“Before we had this system we would have to go and manually pull a file if we needed any information on an individual,” he said. “Now, we can just search for that information without having to leave our work office. As a result, we can still observe our offenders.”

Having access to recent photographs, medical needs and security alerts also comes in handy during suicide attempts, riots and escapes, Boudreau said. In the case of an escape, for example, law enforcement agencies and the media can be given photographs and physical descriptions immediately.

The CIS also shares information with the federal firearms registry and employment insurance officials. This is because offenders in prison don’t need to collect an income and offenders on probation are sometimes restricted from having access to a firearm.

“These are all tremendous advantages,” Boudreau said.

Getting Started

From the time the CIS initiative started, Boudreau wanted those who were going to be using the new system the most to take ownership of the project. This group included correctional officers, probation officers and victim services workers.

“We wanted an operational system that would help people do their jobs better and to interface more effectively with their clients. The approach we took was to build a system that was designed by users, tested by users and implemented by users.”

Of course, those who were going to be using CIS didn’t know how to create the system they all sought. That’s where xwave Solutions Inc. came in. Application services provider xwave is a subsidiary of Halifax-based communications and IT services firm Aliant Inc.

“We felt that it was an ambitious undertaking,” said Tom Demerson, xwave’s director of systems integration. “We felt there was a good fit between what they wanted to do and our ability to help them succeed.”

Securing Information

Part of the success of the CIS initiative hinged on security. With so much information about the 2,000 offenders that the province handles annually being shared, all stakeholders wanted to ensure that privacy was maintained.

“It’s very confidential information we’re dealing with,” Demerson said. “There are internal stakeholders that are able to view certain information and some external stakeholders that we share information with.”

Information is shared among internal stakeholders through a complex, role-based security infrastructure. For example, a probation officer can only access certain areas of the system, such as his or her caseload. However, that same probation officer would not be able to view another probation officer’s caseload.

“When we share information outside the Department of Public Safety, then we use standardized precautions for securing those external transmissions, such as encryption and firewalls, to ensure that information can’t be compromised,” Demerson said.

Change Management

When it came to implementing the new system, Boudreau said the biggest challenge wasn’t how to do it, but how to prepare staff to use it.

“The approach we took was to start by recognizing the client group we had,” he said. “We did a client skill set survey of our correctional officers, probation officers, victims services coordinators and clerical staff.”

Boudreau said it was immediately evident that some people had never used computers and the new technology seemed to threaten them. In order to avoid a backlash when the CIS was brought in, stakeholders established a training program for new computer users. People from within each department were recruited to teach their colleagues.

“We had them taught by people in their own organization,” Boudreau said. “We called on a few corrections officers and probation officers to teach their colleagues and act as mentors.”

Staff in administrative positions felt threatened because they knew their job function was about to change and fears of layoffs loomed.

Boudreau said the first step in this area was to assure them that no one was losing their job because of the changes, and to show them how the new system would allow them to take on more interesting tasks such as data analysis and assistance with case management.

As for the actual implementation, the project was completed in four stages.

“It was introduced slowly and for the first two phases we ran parallel systems so that we wouldn’t compromise the integrity of our information,” Boudreau said.

Continued Success

It comes as no surprise to Boudreau or Demerson that the CIS is successful. In fact, both the Department of Public Safety and xwave saw the potential for the system and a continued partnership in the project’s early phases. As a result, a unique software commercialization agreement was struck between the two parties.

“In the early stages we realized there was an opportunity to re-market the system,” Boudreau said. “The government obviously isn’t in the business of selling a product, but xwave is.”

Under the agreement, the department allows xwave to sub-license all or part of CIS. In return New Brunswick receives a royalty payment based on the value of the components of the system which are re-marketed.

“Through royalties, we can purchase additional enhancements of our own,” said Boudreau, adding that the cost of implementing CIS was about $8 million. “This will help to keep our system current.”

In addition, xwave has agreed to maintain a Corrections Centre of Excellence in Fredericton. As a result, most of the development jobs resulting from future sales and initiatives will remain in the province.

“The reason for the centre is to serve one of the roles of government, which is job creation and job retention,” Demerson said. “Because the New Brunswick government invested in the system, they have an interest in seeing jobs created in and staying in New Brunswick.”

Since the system’s New Brunswick launch, xwave has sold the CIS south of the border. In January, the company began to implement it for the State of Maine. Boudreau said Correctional Services Canada is also interested in the system.

And while he acknowledges that there were some glitches along the way, Boudreau said the positive results of the project far outweigh any negatives.

“There have been some challenges and some set backs associated with this initiative,” he said. “But, without question, this has been a resounding success.”

Veteran journalist Blair McQuillan is assistant editor of CIO Governments’ Review.