What's the Plan?

Without one, information technology is a bane instead of an asset.

by / June 30, 1999
In business, in the military, in politics, in everyday life, it has been proven that individuals or organizations guided by a plan succeed.

Sure, it can be done without a plan. But you'll take detours on roads that go nowhere, often winding up in dead ends. Most professionals recognize this essential truth: A verbal plan is better than no plan and a written plan is better yet. However, in law enforcement planning often takes a second seat to responding.

Prioritizing Planning

For many years, this strategy worked. But today, police and sheriffs' departments are being run more like businesses with public safety as their product. Like other businesses, law enforcement leaders have been looking around the last decade, asking "How can we provide public safety with more efficiency? Better customer service? More effectiveness?"

The answer, more often than not, has been the same for IBM, Ford Motor Co. or any other Fortune 500 company -- seek out and utilize new technologies. But that answer provides also new challenges.

"In a high-tech world, the challenges are sometimes overwhelming," said Dep. Bob Moccio of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department in Northern California. "The sheer number of technologies that we have available can create confusion and we need them all. But most departments can't have it all, at least not all at once."

But the truth is that with effective planning, you can have it all -- even if it means taking it one step at a time. "It is not just one department that needs IT planning, nor is it just one department that suffers from a lack of it," said Helen Gandara-Zavala, administrative services director for the Scottsdale Police Department in Arizona.

Gandara-Zavala recently left the El Paso Police Department for the Scottsdale job and immediately recognized the similarities. "El Paso was larger but it doesn't make that much difference. When we hold our planning meetings here, I see the same problems, just different faces."

"Law enforcement agencies are used to responding to calls, being on the scene quickly in emergencies. It's not easy to shift that way of thinking; to developing long-term plans and making time to update them," explained SPDs Chief Douglas Bartosh, who oversees one of the few departments to develop a long-term strategic plan for information technology.

"Strategic IT planning should encompass a three- to five-year window, and someone should always be thinking, 'What is our next step?'" Bartosh said. "Someone in the department needs to always be aware of which direction you are running in."

The planning process should be thought of on two levels, something that business professionals often refer to as "planning the plan." First, an agency needs to have a long-term strategic plan. Second, each primary goal of that plan, such as acquiring an automated records management system (RMS), needs to be accompanied by a detailed plan of its own.

Be Careful What You Ask For

Scottsdale had one of the country's first police departments to aggressively pursue an automated agency. Because of this, it was also first to try to manage numerous IT acquisitions over relatively short periods of time.

Even department representatives admit that sometimes, even with a plan, the process can become confused. But without it, they insist, it would be impossible to create an automated department.

"You have to have a plan and the plan should detail your overall goal; a mission statement; a five-year action plan and time lines for every technology product you are bringing on," advised Will Davis, SPD's police planning manager.

"Our problem early on was in making sure people stuck to the plan," Davis said. "We ran into a problem of there being so much grant money available that everyone in the department wanted to apply for every grant. The irony was that we were awarded them in almost every case."

The reason why Davis is wry when referring to the number of grants the department was awarded is that every grant comes with a deadline and very few fund the cost of project leaders to manage the project.

"Because the money was available we took it. Suddenly, we found ourselves with more projects ongoing, ahead of our original plan, than we had IT staff to manage," he said. "Still, our planning ahead of time, while not followed as closely as we should have, meant that we still could review it and be reminded of our priorities."

Currently, Scottsdale is on the tail- end of the acquisition process for RMS and mobile computers, and just entering into the acquisition of a slew of other technologies, including a computer-aided dispatch system. In the middle of this process Scottsdale is juggling Y2K issues, and wondering how to find the time to update the original strategic plan written in 1994.

"We know we need to update that plan, and yet our staffing is tight when it comes to IT, so the time is tough to find," admitted Chief Bartosh.

In El Dorado, a much smaller department, Dep. Moccio and his team found the value of planning paid off handsomely when they took on their first high-tech project.

Payoffs for Planning

While Moccio's team did not have the overall strategic-plan component at the time, it invested significant time into planning for its first high-tech acquisition. Whether it can remain focused on the early planning stages, when time becomes precious, is a question.

"When we decided to automate records management, it was the first time any of us had tried to do anything like this. No new automation had occurred in our department in years," Moccio said of the experience of his three-person team. "What we all recognized at the start was that if we didn't plan, we would end up completely overwhelmed. There are so many details, challenges that you never expect."

To ensure it could meet those challenges, the team set out specific goals from the beginning.

"We were funded through a federal grant, and I guess the recipients of those grants must be public information because everybody who receives a COPs MORE grant basically gets pummeled by product literature. The craziness started right there," explained Moccio. "Before we even started looking at that information, we set out a plan that included listing the qualities we wanted to have at the end of the process. We gathered information from everywhere."

"We went to the conferences, to other agencies doing similar projects and to the big-name vendors in the field," Moccio said. "We could have been overloaded and confused with too much information, but what really made the difference was that we knew what we wanted."

"Before we even began talking to vendors, we created, in writing, a strategic plan for purchasing and implementing the new system, and second, we set down the specific criteria for what we wanted," said Dennis Theis, a former deputy then on Moccio's team and now with the District Attorney's Office. "Our criteria was that the RMS we selected had to be running successfully in another jurisdiction; it had to be Windows-based; it had to support integration with the county's jail-management system; and it had to run on our existing IBM AS 400 server."

Make Time to Plan

The El Dorado acquisition has been extremely successful -- it was brought in on time, it does what it was expected to do and the process is now being used as a model for the acquisition of a new CAD system. To what do participants credit their success?

"Essentially they created a plan, reviewed the plan and stuck to the plan," said Nancy Egbert, the third team member and manager of administration and finance for the department.

"It also made our decision easier," she said. "The only company that fit that criteria was the company we went with, so it made the final decision to purchase a no-brainer."

Gandara-Zavala, in Scottsdale, on the value of planning in the Information Age: "All departments have a problem with justifying the civilian-staff funding," she said. "The money goes to bringing on more officers instead of support staff, but the infrastructure, especially today, is essential and it is civilian staff that makes the infrastructure work.

"You are always competing for dollars with the sworn side of the force and with overall city needs," she said. "If you have a strategic plan, a written plan that you can show the chief, the city council or the city CIO, it is much easier to justify the need for new information services positions."


Justice and Technology Editor Ray Dussault is also a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. email