July 9, 2007 By Merrill Douglas
Pennsylvania's Justice Network (JNET) has gained widespread acclaim as a tool for sharing criminal justice and public safety information. JNET, an integrative Web portal, is a fine example of how technology can be used to break down information silos in the public sector, and offers a model for how to govern a technology organization that by definition serves many masters with different needs.
Launched with a few basic services in 1998, JNET has evolved from a project of the Pennsylvania governor's Office of Administration to a full-blown program serving 30,000 state, local and federal users at more than 60 state agencies, in all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, and in 577 district justice offices, 800 municipal police departments and 42 federal agencies.
Led by Executive Director Philip Tomassini, JNET's 20 employees and 25 to 30 consultants operate a business office, a project management office and a help desk, and manage teams focused on operations, architecture, applications, testing, communications and training.
JNET serves as a secure information broker, letting authorized users access data from systems that get input from many stakeholders. For example, at the 15-member Yeadon, Pa., Police Department, David Splain, sergeant of detectives, uses JNET to instantaneously obtain criminal histories, certified copies of driving records, driver's license photos and other pieces of information crucial to criminal investigations. It offers a vast improvement over the old days, when getting driver's license information used to take three weeks, he said. "Three weeks later doesn't do us any good when we need it right now."
Daniel Ellis, a senior special agent with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Office of Investigation, uses JNET to help investigate fraud, violent crimes and other misdeeds connected with programs sponsored or administered by HUD.
"Without JNET, it would be very difficult to do what we do," said Ellis, who accesses the network from a mobile data terminal in his car. "Instead of relaying back and forth and calling my office for a criminal history, which may take two or three days for a driver's license photo, we have immediate access."
JNET recently released a facial recognition system, and it's piloting a system that automatically distributes information about warrants. It's also working on an enterprise service bus, which will let a user pull information from numerous databases, operated by different agencies, by entering a single query.
JNET, which has an annual budget of $8.8 million, devotes $7.2 million to operational costs and $1.6 million to personnel costs. The network relies less on federal grants today than it has in the past -- its funding falls under the Executive Office's category in the governor's annual budget.
Where JNET Fits
As outlined on Pennsylvania's organizational chart, the JNET Office reports to Brenda Kaczmarek, deputy CIO for the Public Safety Community of Practice in the Office of Administration -- one of four deputy CIOs in Pennsylvania's Office for Information Technology (OIT). Kaczmarek reports to state CIO Kristen Miller, deputy secretary for information technology.
"From a day-to-day, tactical oversight perspective, JNET is just like any other bureau, so to speak, within my larger organization," Miller said. From another perspective, JNET is an unusual creature. "What makes it unique is that JNET is also what we call an enterprise project."
That means JNET answers not only to the OIT, but also to the state agencies that are its primary stakeholders. Those include the Pennsylvania State Police, the Department of Corrections, the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Department of Transportation and others with a role in criminal justice and public safety. Officials from these agencies make up JNET's executive council, which sets the high-level strategic objectives, and its steering committee, which oversees execution of the annual business plan.
"My role as executive director is to ensure that the projects we're working on are meeting the requirements of the agencies that requested them," Tomassini said. The JNET office takes direction from Miller's office and at the same time, looks to her as an ally in making the cross-agency collaboration work.
For example, Tomassini works closely with Miller to prepare JNET's annual budget request for the steering committee and to otherwise make sure JNET has the funding it needs. "We interact with her whenever there are issues in trying to procure something," he said. "For example, working with another agency to ensure the necessary resources are available to make a project work."
Miller also works with Tomassini as he is directed by the steering committee to take on new projects "We work together to take that information to the budget office and into the budget process, to try to lobby for those additional funds to do those special projects," Miller said. That's an annual process.
Sometimes the steering committee asks for projects beyond those already in the budget. When that happens, Miller meets with officials whose agencies stand to benefit most from the effort to see if they can contribute money and personnel.
Miller also serves as a coordinator, making sure that JNET, its stakeholders and the state IT enterprise are pulling in the same direction.
"She ensures that the activities we're working on are in line with not just JNET's strategic plan, but obviously the business plan of the agencies that participate in JNET," Tomassini said. He also checks with Miller when a member agency asks JNET to develop an application specifically for that agency's use, to make sure it fits both the agency's business needs and JNET's own strategic plan.
JNET must follow the same IT standards and procedures that apply to every other state entity in Pennsylvania, such as the directive to participate in data consolidation. For example, JNET can't maintain its own data center environment, Miller said. "It has to receive those services from the enterprise."
Since criminal justice agencies need to safeguard their data, a mandate to participate in shared data services doesn't always sit easy.
"That's where the governance structure of JNET really becomes helpful and really plays a large part," Miller said. She works with the JNET steering and policy committees to balance the demands of an efficient statewide IT enterprise with the demands of the public safety community.
While it is often cited as an example for others to follow, neither Miller nor Tomassini can point to another state that has directly modeled a criminal justice resource like JNET. Pennsylvania, though, is starting to adapt the concept to other communities within its own government.
"In HHS [Health and Human Services], for example, we're developing a similar JNET model around health IT for the electronic health records environment," Miller said. Other data brokerage initiatives could follow as the state identifies needs that cut across numerous agencies.
Merrill Douglas is a writer based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology.
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