Is law enforcement a new frontier for shared services?

When it comes to case management, federal law enforcement agencies often have to find their own solutions.

police officer talking on two-way radio beside squad car

Some of the most interesting projects are the ones that never happen.

While the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was planning its new case management system, the agency explored the idea of adopting the system used by the Drug Enforcement Administration, its fellow Justice Department agency.

Case management for federal law enforcement does not easily translate into a shared service, ATF CIO Rick Holgate said in an interview with FCW. Back-end business functions such as financial management, payroll and human resources make good shared services because they can run on a common platform and they are not mission-critical activities.

"The further you get into the mission space, the harder things get," Holgate said.

A customized system like DEA's Investigative Management Program and Case Tracking System is about as far into the mission space as you can get in federal IT. But ATF agents and IT staffers who checked out IMPACT as part of their research were impressed by how closely the DEA system fit ATF's requirements.

"It was something like an 80 percent fit in terms of functionality," Holgate said. "That's a high degree of fit given that the two different organizations didn't coordinate or communicate in how we developed case management processes."

The FBI's Sentinel and systems used by the Secret Service and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency did not match as closely.

IMPACT tracks DEA investigations from the opening of cases to the submission of completed investigations to prosecuting attorneys, which it does with a single command. It interfaces with many of DEA's peripheral systems, including time and attendance, financial management and laboratory management.

Holgate and others were intrigued by other ways in which the two agencies overlap -- notably that in addition to law enforcement, DEA and ATF have regulatory missions. DEA regulates the licensing of medical practitioners, manufacturers and suppliers who conduct legal commerce in controlled substances and their raw materials, and ATF licenses sellers of firearms and explosives.

Things got a bit trickier when Holgate and his counterparts at DEA looked at how a shared service might work on a practical level. DEA was happy to give ATF its source code, Holgate said, but ATF lacked the in-house skills to maintain and upgrade the code. Even if the agency did build its development capacity, ATF would effectively have to take on a "divergent version of custom code," Holgate said, which would somewhat negate the benefit of using IMPACT as a shared service.

The truly "wild idea," Holgate said, was having ATF pay for IMPACT's case management platform on a fee-for-service basis while keeping DEA responsible for maintaining the system. That approach was challenging on many fronts, not least because it would have required shared governance of the platform, with DEA officials making some concessions about functionality and future requirements.

In the end, they decided they did not want to take on the role of a shared-services provider. In April, ATF issued a request for information as a prelude to acquiring its own case management system.

The challenges to sharing

Holgate said he would not rule out the possibility of federal law enforcement agencies sharing a case management platform, but he does not think it is especially likely.

There are some obvious factors that argue against a shared platform. Federal law enforcement agencies have unique statutory requirements and jurisdictional responsibilities. Their histories and internal cultures lead them to approach case management and information collection in different ways.

However, feds are not exactly well served by the commercial space, which focuses on local law enforcement needs such as dispatch and incident reporting. In that context, feds "end up being outliers," Holgate said, because federal jurisdictions extend to white-collar crime, violent crime, international terrorism and other areas that are outside the core functionality of commercial systems.

ATF and DEA's effort was not the first time the Justice Department looked into a shared case management system. In 2006, the department awarded a $42 million contract for a Litigation Case Management System that would connect the department's seven litigating divisions and U.S. attorneys' offices with a single platform.

Four years later, the project was two years behind schedule and $20 million over budget, and it wound up on then-U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra's list of high-risk projects. Eventually, plans for the system were terminated.

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