Credit: Nicholas McIntosh
Rita Reynolds and her team at the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania leveraged Microsoft Dynamics CRM to develop a unified case management system for the state’s jails and adult probation and district attorneys’ offices.
It's the bane of nearly all government information systems. Every agency collects the same information about the same group of citizens, but stores it in separate databases that can't talk to each other. When agency employees need to share data between systems, they laboriously re-enter it into the next database.
The result: Agency databases become polluted as fresh data entries lead to typos and inconsistencies. Citizens experience even more delays in receiving the benefits and assistance they need. And agencies waste thousands of employee hours that could be spent far more productively.
Rita Reynolds and her colleagues at the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) had a better idea. CCAP is a statewide association that, along with other legislative,education and insurance services, offers technology consulting to 67 county governments. For the past six years, CCAP has been using a Microsoft Dynamics CRM to help manage its own internal data.
"Do you think we can ever get to a system where everyone shares the same information?"
Reynolds, CCAP's director of technology services and telecommunications, wondered if Microsoft Dynamics CRM could be used to marry some of the disparate databases maintained by each county. The state of Illinois was successfully using the product to share data across different state agencies. Could Pennsylvania do the same?
In June 2011, Reynolds invited key officials from all 67 counties to a meeting and proposed to the 14 who showed up that they create a unified case management system for each county's jails and adult probation and district attorney's offices. If successful, employees at all three agencies would be able to call up the same name, address, birth date and other personal data for every offender in the system, and pull more information as needed.
"I asked, 'Do you think we can ever get to a system where everyone shares the same information?' " she recalls. "Everyone laughed and said, 'We'll all be retired before that happens.' "
But when they saw what Microsoft Dynamics CRM could potentially do, six counties immediately agreed to be part of a pilot program. With that, CCAP began to procure funding and hire developers.
Powerful Data Simplifies Case Management
Of course, change of this magnitude doesn't happen overnight. Thirteen counties are now using the first module — a web portal through which offenders can check in with their probation officers online. The full adult probation module was completed last February, and five counties were using it by August; 29 more counties are scheduled to come online before the end of next year. The DA module was recently completed, and Reynolds estimates that the jail module is 85 percent done.
Even at this early stage, the new system is paying dividends, she says.
"Recently, an adult probation chief came up to a staff clerk and said, 'I have a meeting in 15 minutes with a judge, and I need to know how many active drug offenders we've been able to put into the specialty treatment court.' In about five minutes, the clerk was able to query the case management system and print out a list of the relevant cases. In the past, all we could have done was give her an estimate. Now she can walk into the meeting with the judge and have real facts in front of her."
Among other benefits, the new system can alert employees if an offender needs to provide a DNA sample and allows them to print one-page profiles of each person in the system — things that in the past would have required multiple phone calls between agencies or cutting and pasting between applications.
Now, after their initial skepticism, more agencies want to join the program and find other ways to unify their information systems, Reynolds says.
"The snowball has become an avalanche, and everyone wants it yesterday."
"The snowball has become an avalanche, and everyone wants it yesterday," she says. "But we can't just bring everyone in all at once. This is not just a new case management system. It's a new way of doing business with the county and the state."
Salesforce Enables Quick and Easy Access to Data
Pennsylvania isn't the only state to discover that the right CRM system can enable governments to gain efficiencies and better serve their constituencies.
For Colorado, CRM functions as a cloud-based development platform that can be customized to fit virtually any agency's needs, says John Conley, executive director of Colorado's Statewide Internet Portal Authority, a quasi-governmental technology aggregator for local governments and state agencies.
At present, six state agencies have deployed a dozen different applications built on the Salesforce.com platform, and they're just getting started, he says. Among other things, agencies use Salesforce apps to track public art grants, handle correspondence between citizens and the governor's office, and ensure that calls to the state's Medicare/Medicaid assistance line get routed correctly and resolved quickly.
Most important, the platform provides a highly flexible and inexpensive way to create custom applications, Conley says. Apps that once would have taken six months to develop now take six weeks — and at a fraction of the cost. Using the Salesforce government app exchange, Colorado has taken apps written for another state, changed a few fields and reused them, for free.
"In the past, developers would build a web form, then citizens would enter their data into it," he says. "That data would be downloaded into a CSV file, then uploaded again into a different application before it could enter the workflow. Those things are now blended. Citizens enter data into the same system that government employees use to do their jobs. We've removed an entire layer of replication and limited the opportunity for data entry error."
A Win-Win for Agencies and Citizens
These efficiencies streamline the work of state employees, but they also need to translate into real benefits for citizens, notes Greg Jones, chief technology officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Roughly five years ago, NCDPS moved its Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement system to an app built using Microsoft Dynamics. In the past, ALE agents would inspect liquor stores to approve licenses and investigate alleged violations and then file paper reports delivered to store owners via courier. With Dynamics, agents can sync records electronically each day, cutting weeks out of the process.
The department also has created a Dynamics app to manage its grant reimbursement program, which funds things such as shelters for battered women, afterschool programs for at-risk kids and overtime pay for police officers participating in crime prevention programs, Jones says.
Local agencies would often have to pay for these services up front and then file an application with the state to be reimbursed. That meant filling out a web form or mailing a paper application, which would then be entered by a state employee into an Access database, synced with the state's financial accounting system, and then entered again into the state mainframe, before grant managers could approve reimbursement. With the Dynamics app, the data is entered once and distributed to every system that requires it.
It's a win for all involved, Jones says.
"People are getting their checks faster and can check the status of their requests online," Jones explains. "Grant managers don't have to spend all their time doing data entry and have more time to visit project locations to ensure that grant money is being spent properly. It helps make sure everyone gets what they've asked for and no one is overpaid."
Tools like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics are changing how governments serve their constituents, Conley adds.
"They allow you to put citizens first," he says. "When you're looking to go down that path, you need to start thinking not as a government official but as a citizen who wants to get information. Citizens just want to work with government, and they want it to be easy. They don't care if they're using Google, Salesforce or Microsoft. The most important thing is they want it to work and to serve their needs."
Busting Three CRM Myths
- If you build it, they will come. You can lead employees to your new CRM system, but you can't force them to use it. You need buy-in from the very top of the organization to the very bottom, says Rita Reynolds, director of technology services and telecommunications for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. "You can't exclude the people who are actually doing the work and who may be set in their ways," she says. "You need to interact with them and keep presenting the new system until they see how it saves them time and energy."
- You can go it alone. Whether you're going with an on-premises solution or the cloud, you'll need a partner who can help customize the app. Greg Jones, chief technology officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, says NCDPS relied on an IT services consulting firm to help build its grant management and Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement applications, which he described as "75 percent custom."
- You'll no longer need I.T. Going to a cloud-based CRM system may reduce the amount of technical expertise you need in-house, but it doesn't eliminate it. "You still need someone who understands the basic architecture of the app so that when something goes awry, they can have an intelligent conversation about it with the service provider," says John Conley, executive director of Colorado's Statewide Internet Portal Authority. "You may need fewer IT people, but they'll need to be more sophisticated."