A focus on culture allowed NZ's Ministry of Justice to reap rewards from data

The ministry's director of Information and Business Intelligence details the journey the government entity went on to build and develop a data-enabled culture.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

In 2014, New Zealand's Tahu o te Ture chief executive and secretary for justice Andrew Bridgman returned to work from the summer break as scheduled. But as recalled by the ministry's director of Information and Business Intelligence Wendy Hamilton, Bridgman returned armed with a determination to shake up the way his agency worked.

"I want to have a data-driven organisation," Hamilton quoted Bridgman as telling staff at the time.

The ambitious direction made the ministry take a look at the organisation as a whole -- a mammoth task given nearly 4,000 staff are employed by the government entity.

"We looked around and what we saw were all the hallmarks and characteristics of an organisation with low data and analytics maturity," Hamilton told the Gartner Data & Analytics Summit in Sydney on Monday.

"We asked what we thought were straightforward questions, and two things happened: One, it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to get an answer; and then when we did get an answer, they were different answers and we were left figuring out what was the story in between."

Justice is the only agency that works across all three layers of the country's government. It covers courts at all levels; supports 29 dispute tribunals, authorities, and committees; provides legal help to people charged with criminal offences through the Public Defence Service; administers the Legal Aid system; and develops justice policy and provides advice to ministers and to cabinet, among many other functions.

As a result, data ended up disparately stored and underutilised.

"A lot of our reporting and analytics ... was backwards-looking and we didn't know what the future looked like. We counted inputs and outputs and couldn't tell you what the story was across various services and silos," Hamilton continued.

"We had one area in particular that we provided services in the family justice environment and we had loads of data for all of the services that appeared outside of the court process, as well as inside the court process. What we couldn't do was answer the minister's question, which was, "How are the family justice reforms working?"

Hamilton said that of the data the ministry had, some was good, but some was bad; she said there was also minimal visibility of where all of the data lived.

"When we would create good products, they weren't scalable," she added.

Justice also had no data governance, teams worked off different data definitions, there was no consistency across the organisation, and there was no policy framework. Hamilton said the list goes on.

But Justice was relatively lucky; its executives had a pretty good idea of what they wanted and it boiled down to a few things.

"They wanted quick, easy access to reliable data; they wanted to turn data into insight and what we discovered was if that's not good enough, you've got to turn insights into action," she explained. "They wanted to have an enterprise view of our data that they could make both operational and strategic decisions with."

However, Justice soon realised that strategy was not enough; cultural barriers were in fact inhibiting the progress and Hamilton said that needed to change.

"Driven from the top by the chief executive, we embarked on a journey that sparked a cultural change, starting with our leaders," she said.

The ministry took a step back and looked at its data, mapping how increases in one part of a process also resulted in increases later in another process. Hamilton said that while people didn't trust the data, the analytics teams did -- four months later, however, they all did.

"We may have lost three to four months at that point in time, but what we gained was an enormous level of trust. A lot of culture is about trust," she explained.

"And so, we were able to start building capability ... across multi-disciplinary teams. It wasn't just the techies doing the data and analytics and somewhere along the lines some lucky consumer was getting something, we started to put these groups of teams together in a room to actually to start working on specific business questions."

Only when the culture was working well between the data analysts and the technology people did Justice start implementing technology.

"Often technology was put into dysfunctional environments and guess what? It failed," Hamilton said. "We worked on fixing the environment, we worked on fixing the culture, we worked on fixing the people, and then we started to implement some critical technology.

"And now we're at the exciting stage of being able to really invent through the use of data and analytics."

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