Delivering Justice with Data: A Ministry's Tale

The Chief Executive of New Zealand's Ministry of Justice had an epiphany when he went on his Christmas holidays at the end of 2013.

He realized the Ministry needed to transform into a data enabled organization and that it had to throw itself into the project, beginning with the culture.

“So, we’ve been on a journey of data enablement ever since 2014,” Wendy Hamilton, the Ministry’s Director of Information and Business Intelligence said at the Gartner Data & Analytics Summit in Sydney in late February.

“And you’d have to say that although we have succeeded in building that culture of enablement, it didn’t go that smoothly at times,” she said.

Finding the Starting Point

The Ministry of Justice is a national organization with around 4,000 employees throughout New Zealand supporting the judiciary. It is the largest legal firm in the country, providing legal aid, and policy advice to the Government on civil and criminal issues. It also deals with questions about money laundering, human rights, and privacy. 

As a result of this heritage, it captures a lot of data that exists in silos. Operational teams rarely work with each other and share information and data.

“Before we went through this we couldn’t tell you very much about the customer journey or experience, but we could tell you about the silos of our service delivery,” Hamilton said.

"All of our reporting and analytics was descriptive and backward-looking,” she added.

Hamilton and her team were responsible for implementing the CEO's vision. One of the early lessons was that it was not so much the strategy or technology--it was the culture.

“It was easy for the CEO to come back from holidays and say he wanted a data-driven organization,” Hamilton said. “But this stuff is hard.”

The starting point was also daunting. There was no data governance, definitions and standards around data, and a data policy framework. Data quality was variable, and the products that were in use were not scalable.

The goal to become data-driven was a long way away. The ideal future was a new environment where data was reliable and easy to access. More importantly, it would help to create insights from data, which could then be turned into actions.

“It was like climbing Mount Everest, but we embarked on the journey, and it was incremental,” Hamilton said.

“We didn’t know all the details about how we would get to the top, but we knew that the strategy was not [good] enough, there were cultural barriers inhibiting our progress, and we needed to change,” she added.

Navigating the Challenges

There was stiff internal resistance at first, but the analytics team soon proved their point.

They looked at data around legal aid applications. They found out that if there was a spike in application numbers, it resulted in a rise in court volumes several months later. The insight was that higher volumes could be predicted and better planned for regarding resource allocations.

“The analytics team made a bold statement and predicted a rise in volumes, but the operational team initially said they couldn’t see it. They said that the data people were the only ones saying this and that they did not hear anything like this from the field,” Hamilton said.

“But the data analytics guys held to their story because they trusted the data, and then three to four months later what they said would happen started to happen,” she added.

Proving the potential of using data to deliver insights was a significant catalyst early in the transformation. Organizational leaders came on board with the project and the journey to “Mount Everest” began.

Once the change was driven by leaders, the department created multi-disciplinary teams to work on specific business questions and outcomes. For example, they wanted to achieve the goal of dealing with all cases involving “serious harm” within a 12-month timeframe.

It was not until later that new technology was implemented--a decision Hamilton said proved to be a good one.

“So often good technology is put into dysfunctional environments. We worked on fixing the people and the culture first, and it was only then that we started to implement some cool technology,” she added.

The Department also involved its incumbent vendors in the process, speeding up the building of the new tools.

The Real Journey Begins

Today, the journey is ongoing. “Mount Everest” is in sight, though perhaps not yet conquered.

More importantly, the Department of Justice is embedding data and analytics, knocking down silos where the “sacred cows” lived, and building a new governance framework across the organization which has the ethical use of data at its core.

“The game changer for us was committed leadership at all levels focused on a common purpose,” Hamilton said.

“That is what started to change behaviors and the culture, and began our journey to data enablement,” she added.