OCASI Sectoral Database Study
|Org:||Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants|
It is not an understatement to say that Ontario settlement agencies are facing an information management crisis. In order to get a handle on this crisis and identify solutions, OCASI commissioned a study of the state of information management within the Ontario settlement sector. Building on both extensive consultations with settlement agencies and in-depth reviews of information management systems, this report both paints a picture of the current crisis and offers a number of possible solutions.
Core findings: fragmentation, inefficiency .... and hope
Ontario settlement agencies are struggling with information management. Across the board, agencies are juggling information between multiple systems, doing double or triple entry of the same data and generally struggling to keep up with a huge load of client record keeping and reporting to funders. Yet, even with all of these troubles, most agencies remain optimistic about the idea that the right information tools can actually make their work easier and help them to better serve their clients. The situation can be summed up in three words ? fragmentation, inefficiency .... and hope.
Information management systems within most agencies are fragmented, with information spread across paper files, spreadsheets and databases ? and no central repository to keep everything together. As a result, it is difficult ? or even impossible ? for many agencies to use the information they gather to support management decision making or program evaluation.
Every agency in Ontario faces a common challenge ? they are entering the same data two, three or even four times into different systems. These redundancies result both from the lack of good systems within agencies and from the use of proprietary, reporting-only databases by funders. No matter the cause, the result is inefficiency, frustration and a huge waste of valuable human resources.
Ontario settlement agencies are craving better information management and reporting tools. Certainly, they are frustrated with current circumstances. But they are also hopeful and articulate about the benefits that better tools could provide. This hope provides a solid foundation on which better systems can be built and rolled out.
Ignoring the crisis?
Consider the information management challenges of the travel industry for a moment. Would anyone ever propose that all travel agents should use a different booking interface for each airline they deal with? No, because the results would be mass chaos and inefficiency. Yet this is exactly what we are asking of settlement agencies. There is no connection between the systems they use for their day to day work and the myriad of systems they must use to cooperate with other programs and report to their funders. As our research demonstrates, the result is frustration, inefficiency and waste.
If we continue to encourage a fragmented and inefficient approach to information management in the settlement sector, we can expect:
- Overhead costs related to funder reporting will continue to rise, with more and more agency staff time going into the maintenance of multiple information systems.
- Evaluation and outcomes measurement costs will also skyrocket, while at the same time it will remain difficult to actually access the information required to do useful evaluation work.
- Agencies will continue to pour money into electronic and paper record keeping without reaping benefits such as better service delivery feedback and program outcomes information for managers.
- Morale in the settlement sector will continue to erode as frontline workers feel like they are on a treadmill, constantly collecting information that doesn't help them or their clients.
The good news is that this grim future need not come to pass. Others in both the private and public sector have been able to overcome the kind of interoperability and user buy in issues currently faced by the settlement sector. What is needed is simply a clear vision and a commitment to the hard work necessary to turn vision into reality.
Future vision: a system that benefits all stakeholders
A new approach to information management and reporting is needed in the settlement sector. First and foremost, this approach needs to be focused around the idea that all stakeholders ? clients, frontline staff, managers and funders ? must benefit from the information systems that are in place. It must also emphasize interoperability, allowing the growing number of agency and funder information management systems to talk to each other electronically. If an approach that meets these two criteria can be put in place, there is a good chance that we can move from an information management crisis to an era where funders and agencies alike have the information they need to provider better services to newcomers.
At a practical level, a new approach to settlement sector information management will require the development of information standards and the implementation of new software systems. More specifically, there is a need for:
- Data exchange standards that allow different systems to talk to each other electronically, connecting agency case management systems with CIC reporting databases
- Flexible and affordable case management software that helps agencies do their work better, both at a day-to-day level and at the level of evaluation
- Training and change management support to ensure that agencies are able to effectively integrate new systems into their day to day work
- Space for diversity, ensuring that agencies with multiple programs or with their own database tools are still able to benefit from the new approach being proposed
It must also be emphasized that these new systems will not solve our current problems if they are implemented in a top-down manner that is disconnected from end users. Success will hinge on a commitment to user-centred system design, shared governance and sound management.
Recommendations for action
Moving towards the vision described above - new tools for agencies that need them, data standards that allow other systems to connect to funders, training and change management for agencies ? will take years. Nonetheless, it is important that a number of steps are taken immediately:
- Begin development of data exchange standards that can be used in Ontario and nationally, working closely with those who have already broken ground in this area such as the Canadian Outcomes Research Institute (CORI) and the Alberta Association of Immigrant and Settlement Agencies (AAISA).
- Implement a web-based case management system for agencies that need it, starting as soon as possible with a pilot project involving 10 agencies. Ideally this system should be based on the HOMES case management software that is used wisely by settlement agencies and other non-profits in Alberta and British Columbia.
- Provide training and change management support, both to the agencies using the new case management system and for agencies that integrate the new standard into their own systems. This training will be absolutely critical to the success of this initiative. Without it, agencies are unlikely to undertake the necessary steps to fully integrate new information management systems into their day to day work.
- Actively support diversity through inclusion of agencies with existing systems, involving them right from the start in the development of data exchange standards. Also, make sure that these agencies receive technical and business process support to help with the integration of their systems into the broader system used by the whole sector.
- Commit to a user-centric approach from day one by involving end users in the development and testing of new information management solutions. This does not mean setting up committee structures that meet occasionally and filter a small number of comments back to developers. Rather, it will require a direct interface between developers and the user community on an ongoing basis.
Initial efforts to pull together a standards development team and to negotiate software options should begin as soon as possible. Implementation of the pilot project should begin once a software option has been confirmed and negotiations with the provider are complete. Most likely, this means beginning the pilot at the beginning of fiscal 2005/2006.